It Begins with a Spark

Exploring the campaigns that incite social change from the brands that respond to the increasingly political youth generation.

There’s no rest for the wicked when it comes to advertising, and if you hit the right targets, you can leave your competitors in the dust. Some brands focus on maximizing new and emerging platforms, while others innovate at channels they are best in, their ever reliable media mix. Whatever the case, brands have now evolved to do more than the hard sell, catering to an audience with an increased social awareness and a desire for equality and justice.

We’ve had a tumultuous past year. 2016 was a landmark period of historical events with repercussions that we will feel in the years to come. The Philippine and American elections, undoubtedly the most talked-about topic in our country and the world respectively, began ripples that would turn into waves as we face uneasy years of new and unprecedented change. Brexit, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the world’s response (and lack thereof) to threats of terrorism, all breed bigotry and prejudice through hate crimes and human rights abuses, fueled by leaders who have their own agendas—and not necessarily for the good of mankind.

All these happened while the world struggles to keep a sense of comfort and normalcy, going through life’s motions because it’s what we’re born to do. But to a generation taught to work and keep their head down while experiencing the very injustices that plague society while growing up, chaining themselves to the routinary measures of life simply won’t cut it. As the last of the millennial generation finish up college and head on to the workforce, the desire to change the world remains stronger than ever.

It’s up to brands to fulfill their social obligations by promoting campaigns that help society stay woke. Our generation has awakened, and they have responded to keep us caffeinated.

What began with empathy

Art and popular media are always a reflection of society at the time they were made, and today’s socially aware brands and audiences are effective today thanks to an earlier trend: sadvertising. In the early 2010’s, when digital platforms have well matured and social is well established, audiences, especially the youth, have had the thirst for real, authentic stories.

Talk to anyone about Thailand’s advertising scene and you would likely discover that they’ve watched at least one soppy, feels-inducing commercial. Thanks to the internet, advertisements often the length of short films show people, often poor to middle-class, experiencing real struggles that tells a tale about a universal theme: family, love, and/or pursuing your dreams.

Thailand can very well take the sadvertising crown, as their ads go viral quickly, earning their reputation as the go-to industry for weep-worthy content. For a sentimental race like ours, commercials that pull the heartstrings often remain the most iconic (McDonald’s commercial about Karen and her Lolo back in the early 2000’s comes into mind).

While tear-jerker media has never been out of style, the rise of even more empathetic audiences grew stronger thanks to movies and media that pulled our heartstrings. This phenomenon, now referred to as hugot culture, credits its influence thanks to Antoinette Jadaone’s 2014 film, That Thing Called Tadhana. Arguably the titular movie to make hugot mainstream, Tadhana made Filipinos dig deeper into their personal experiences, whether seriously or through comic relief, the movie made Filipinos feel more. These feelings may have predicated desires to fight for the things we value, from love to eventually, our countrymen and our world.

Even today, hugot culture and weep-worthy ads remain just as effective with Jollibee’s 2017 Valentine’s Day ads a clear example of how stories continue to affect audiences, no matter what age. Whether it’s about the unrequited love of a man on his best friend’s wedding, or a long distance Valentine’s Day dinner with a cancer-stricken father, campaigns that move hearts remain an important factor in raising a generation that appreciates the things they value most. These things can inspire audiences to wake up and be more passionate about the issues that matter, which in turn help brands cater to a more political, more aware generation.

Rebelling against the norm

Because global politics has become a hot topic for a lot of us, brands have grown aggressive in making a statement. As people become informed about social injustices, they strive for empowerment, and brands hoping to cash in on this new trend produce campaigns that count on audience’s social awareness to maximize their messages’ impact. Thanks to today’s political climate, brands have stepped up their game to deliver a stronger, bolder message.

Pantene’s 2013 ad “A Man’s A Boss, A Woman’s Bossy” illustrates the reality of gender stereotypes in the workplace and struck a conversation on how women are treated as inferiors to their male counterparts, often being called pushy, show-off, and selfish for the same things men do. A year later, Pantene strikes again with their #WhipIt series, this time starring celebrities like Kris Aquino and Denise Laurel, women who have been labelled “opinyonada” and “sayang” respectively, just because Aquino has a strong media presence while Laurel has a child. These commercials may not have a strong relation to shampoo and conditioner, but nevertheless raise a point that their primary audience is and should be treated as a first-class citizen.

Always’#LikeAGirl campaign pushes this further by bringing the message to younger girls. Girls often face much scrutiny over the things they wish to do, from participating in certain sports to dressing a certain way. From its start back in 2014 to its big time commercials last year, Always defied gender norms and proved that doing things like a girl isn’t an insult: it is the ultimate compliment.

Smart Communication’s 2016 LGBT-themed commercial, Break Down Barriers, caters to an audience that’s more open to the spectrum of relationships but at the same time still value the importance of family. Telling a story about a gay man who has finally accepted his father’s Facebook friend request (and his father accepting him too as well) touched the hearts of all LGBT Filipinos and their allies nationwide.

The Body Shop Philippines, in its 2017 ad puts a spin on the empowerment theme with its campaign title, Make Love Not War with Sensitive Skin, by having endorsers like Jigs Mayuga, Danah and Stacy Gutierrez, Chin Chin Obcena and Edcel Ched, all with different backgrounds and stories, to share their commitment to fighting back against bigotry and hate by being proud of their bodies, their sexualities, and of course, their own skin.

A wake up call

Just recently, a surprisingly progressive online ad was published by a very unlikely brand: Minola Premium Coconut cooking oil. It tells a story about a male protagonist narrating things that people want—some want a lot of things, some want something that’s different, but he wants nothing else because nothing is better than what his lover cooks—food created by his own man.

What makes the commercial so progressive is the fact that it’s direct in its portrayal and approval of same-sex relationships, along with its positive portrayal of polyamory (“some want a lot of things”) and intergenerational relationships (“some want something that’s different”). While it didn’t get the same attention as Jollibee’s own ads, Minola’s commercial is a reminder that acceptance is way overdue for people who aren’t considered normal by society.

For brands that truly want to take action, shocking your audiences is the best way to truly make them do something to help others. As far as shock factor goes, Save The Children UK’s “Most Shocking Second A Day” ad from their “If London Were Syria” campaign back in 2014 hits audiences hard with a reality check on the refugee crisis that is still going on today. Flipping the story from the war-torn Aleppo to the United Kingdom, Save The Children successfully drives their narrative by asking the question: what if the UK had the refugee crisis? The ad stars a little girl in a video journal-style narrative, with each second showing a darker fate for the nation as it slowly erodes into war. A sequel in 2016 named “Still The Most Shocking Second A Day” shows a much darker and brutal progression alluding to real events that happened: from shelter bombings to refugee boats that capsized and drowned many fleeing citizens from their homeland.

The ever popular advertising battleground that is the Super Bowl wasn’t spared from brands who pushed a political message in light of recent events. While most of the talk was centered on the game and its half-time performer, Lady Gaga (who also had a patriotic message before she began her performance), advertisements that usually battled for virality through creative execution and concepts now placed politics and social issues front and center. Two ads that are controversial, such as 84 Lumber’s pro-immigration ad that was banned from being aired fully and Budweiser’s “Born The Hard Way” that instigated a boycott from conservative parties showed that brands, intentionally or otherwise, have a role in politics and it’s their job to answer to their audiences who wish to identify with them and be represented.

Lighting the fire

PwC, an international professional services network, estimated that millennials will make up half the global workforce in 2020. This means big things for brands: our ability to change and update old systems is stronger, and so is our buying power. Our constant connectedness to the web also gives us a lot of room to determine which brand we will endorse and ignore.

Young creatives may first feel like they don’t fit in this puzzle, for art and design are often taken for granted. Fortunately, the community is growing, and with each passing day, new ways to contribute to the conversation rise as people become more aware of issues that they care deeply about.

Remember the #MarcosNotAHero rallies? A good chunk of the people engaged in political dissent were millennials, complete with witty, well-written placards. In the recently-concluded Art Fair in Makati, #Hukayin (dig up) shirts were sold as a political fashion statement. The Art Fair itself had provocative pieces, often political and with a bold statement.

Art by HuhSmile


A CNN Philippines Life feature of the 2017 Art Fair Philippines highlights the radical artworks created in its exhibit, through select artists who were commissioned for its “Projects” section. While themes related to politics and social injustices were always a part of the fair, this year’s selections were definitely made in light of our local atmosphere, the tense uncertainty that our country faces as we tackle with the administration’s war on drugs, relations with other countries, and extrajudicial killings.

Art by HuhSmile

Young creators have joined on in the discussion too, with online platforms making distribution practically free, artists like Huhsmile, Emiliana Kampilan, and Rob Cham combine pop culture with original stories and concepts, all as a reaction to social injustices and use their platform to promote social action.

The world has changed and in many ways for the worse, and there’s no better time to act than now. Brands have responded to our desires for great stories, and we in turn continue to inspire others to fight for what’s right. As creatives, the challenge now lies in us—when people are awakened, we must continue the keep the fire lit.

Only then can true change and justice be accomplished in the art that we make.