Social Justice and Advertising: Should Social Issues Be Used in Commercials?

November 6, 2019

In a constantly changing political climate, advocates and activists are assertively attempting to advertise issues close to their hearts. From stances on illegal immigration and abortion laws to child poverty and the national economy, the spread of a message has a powerful hold on the nation’s constituents. Television and media- more accessible than ever in a digital age- is a beneficial outlet to convey these heavy topics, but should social issues be used in commercials?


Photo: Franck V. on Unsplash  


If this question was posed decades ago, it wouldn’t have nearly the controversy it does today. It is inevitable that people are more passionate about their perspectives as years progress and their knowledge and world experience advances. Even during times of the Civil War and Sexual Revolution in the late 19th century, while there were certainly opposing views, there was little to no opinion on these messages conveyed in the media.


Part of the reason why social justice advertising is so controversial is because media has become more complex. According to David S. Waller, researcher of his project, “Attitudes Toward Offensive Advertising: An Australian Study,” conveyed that because society has become more complicated, “agencies try to become more creative to ‘cut through the clutter’ to gain attention and brand awareness,” leaving the airing of the commercial to be “very successful or very damaging.”


For instance, a simple product like a razor has the ability to spiral into more than merely its benefits to those who use the product. On January 16, 2019, an Internet-only advertisement launched by Gillette caused an extreme about of controversy for “invoking the #MeToo movement.


According to USA Today, this commercial touched upon “toxic masculinity” in the eyes of those who feel strongly about the original movement- an intent to raise awareness for women’s issues and rights.


However, this is not the only time an advertisement has sparked controversy. During the 2015 Golden Globes, the McDonald’s “Carry On” commercial faced extreme backlash for reflecting on previous tragedies in an improper and unrespectful manner. Featuring a montage of McDonald’s signs- referencing adversities such as the Boston Marathon bombing and 9/11 attacks- was taken by the audience as a way for McDonald’s to attract customers, simply because they changed their sign to honor prior, nationwide events. One user on Twitter posted during the advertisement’s circulation that  “The McDonald’s commercial that wants us to thank them for changing their signs during national tragedies is more tasteless than the McRib.”


Even more intense was the 2007 Snickers Super Bowl commercial, the company forced to delete the advertisement from circulation after accusations of harmfully targeting the LGBT community. The advertisement features two male mechanics who accidentally kiss- sharing their love for the Snickers candy- and immediately pull away from each other in disgust. The company went even further at being offensive by creating the commercial with two alternative endings- the two men beating each other after the kiss; another having the two Super Bowl teams laughing along at the “gross” encounter.


There is no doubt that commercials have a long and widespread history of being controversial- yet social justice advertising can be done in an effective manner. There is definitely a wise approach with the right planning and creative skills. However, because social justice issues surround us more than ever as a nation, social justice advertisements can tend to annoy consumers who simply want them to cut to the chase and showcase the product.


It is truly up to the company to decide if they would like to advertise social justice issues. There is certainly a refined difference between advertising an issue of controversy and supporting an idea in a media campaign. Regardless of the approach, advertisers must know that it is crucial to approach both sides of the issue and relate to the audience- key tactics in promoting the most pressing topics of discussion.


Victoria Giardina is an 18 student at The College of New Jersey pursuing a Major in Journalism and Professional Writing with a  Minor in Communication Studies. Victoria's favorite movie is The Greatest Showman and you can never find her without her planner! As the founder of Kick It Cancer ( and a news anchor for her campus-wide news station- LTV News, Victoria steps up for community outreach, leadership, and creative storytelling. In the future, Victoria hopes to work in the broadcasting industry in New York City.


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