Nice political movement — mind if we co-opt it to sell some shit?

Cringeworthy political ads from companies like Pepsi and Gillette are what happens when an industry seeks organic attention by whatever means necessary.

Your name is Brad Jakeman, and you are the president of PepsiCo’s Global Beverage Group and head of the Creators League, its in-house content studio. It’s 2017, and you’re sitting in the largest conference room of the League’s 4,000 square foot SoHo office — itself a manifestation of your marketing might — as a director takes you and a few senior stakeholders through the final storyboard of Pepsi’s next multimillion-dollar TV spot. This is the pre-production meeting, at which you’ll give final signoff on details like props, location, and wardrobe. You’ll also greenlight the film’s cast, with the exception of its star, whom you’ve already locked up in a deal worth more than your entire production budget. Her name is Kendall Jenner. And this is what you produce.

You might remember what happened next: the ad was pilloried, Pepsi immediately pulled it, and America resolved to never again appoint Kendall Jenner to fight fascism while selling sugar water.

More puzzling than its bungled execution, though, was the commercial’s rationale. However benign Pepsi’s (all-white) team considered the final treatment, they had to have known that it was a gamble; they were lifting the language of Black Lives Matter wholesale. No amount of neutering could obscure the spot’s origins.

Politically minded advertising isn’t new, but it has changed. 50 years ago, Madison Avenue studiously avoided social issues. Viewed through the gauzy filter of 1960s advertising, “a picture of American culture would emerge that bears scant resemblance to social and political realities of the times,” critic Steven Heller has noted. Today, the highest-profile ads are explicitly progressive — or, to be specific, they affect a progressive voice. And even if you’re a cord-cutting ad-blocking millennial who gift-guides every purchase, you probably still heard something about Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad, Gillette’s #MeToo commercial, or those Starbucks Race Together cups, which invited customers to talk about racism after collecting their lattes from the Pick Up Zone. You might be tempted to think woke ads are a trend, but they’re closer to an inevitability.

“I think the world has become a lot more political, so therefore advertising has been forced to become a lot more political,” Rob Schwartz, the CEO of ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, said. Studies show that millennial consumers are more attuned to corporate social responsibility, and more willing to vote with their wallets, than previous generations. Advertising is fundamentally reactive, and for the last 15 years the industry has strained to acknowledge the emergence of conscious capitalism.

Critics of progressive campaigns smear them as a convenient way to launder bad business (fat-riddled snack foods, naughty supply chains) or goose sales by jumping on popular bandwagons, or both. What they fail to appreciate is that no company has a firm grip on the rudder — neither bloated multinationals nor the agencies that service them. The truth is that modern advertising happens almost by accident.

In May, Burger King unveiled a line of “Real Meals” to promote Mental Health Awareness month (and take a swipe at McDonald’s). Effectively just art-directed boxes for identical Whopper combos, they bore names like “Blue Meal,” “Salty Meal,” and “Pissed Meal,” and launched alongside a short film: a two-minute ballad of dissatisfaction that urged viewers to #FeelYourWay. Within days, the campaign had received coverage from almost every major outlet in the country. Much of it was negative. To the Twitterati, the story offered readymade punchlines. But many mental health experts supported the initiative, citing its target audience. “This is the way they communicate and talk,” said Tiffany Huth, director of communications at the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness.

Scott Stripling, a former Group Creative Director at MullenLowe and the lead creative on Real Meals, professed shock that any of it actually happened. “This whole thing was bathing in against-all-odds from start to finish,” he told me.

For starters, his team wasn’t properly briefed — the first stage of creative development, when a client’s needs are translated into a single-minded objective for art directors and copywriters to work towards. “Real Meals was literally the product of a ‘drive-by briefing,’ where the ask was, ‘Hey, let’s just throw some elbows and see where we land,’” Stripling said. “It was one of those classic, ‘I wonder if this will ever go anywhere�� assignments that turned into one of those ‘Holy shit I can’t believe this might actually get done’ assignments.” The assignment, in other words, was to do something interesting — a vague imperative from which the entire campaign unfolded.

This is not the way it’s supposed to work. Advertising may be more art than science, but its stability is predicated on a system to which agencies have historically tried to adhere. In the 1970s, an agency might have been approached by a company with flat sales or a new formula. An account executive (picture Mad Men’s Pete Campbell) would sit down with the client — typically a chief marketing officer or one of his deputies — to hash out the particulars. What was the intended message of the new campaign? What audience should it attempt to reach, and how will its success be judged? Together they would distill these goals into a short document: the creative brief. The agency’s creative department (Don, Peggy, the pitiable Paul Kinsey) would generate an idea tailored to the brief, the media department (Harry Crane) would buy space to run the resulting ads, and your grandparents would swallow a small piece of persuasion with their TV dinner.

The growing reliance on what is known as “earned media” has upended that model. Where paid media means any kind of sponsored message — a billboard, a TV spot, an Instagram story — earned media refers to the free promotion of a brand, whether in message threads, column inches, or minutes on Good Morning America. The tantalizing prospect of a million aunts posting a brand’s heartwarming message to Facebook has inverted the industry’s self-conception. Agency executives now see advertising as its own kind of content, and judge creative by how widely it gets shared. Like memes, ads seek to self-propagate.

Earned media tends to favor talkability over more concrete metrics, but there’s a reason why many brand managers — traditionally bottom-line types — have embraced it: the return on investment (ROI). Earned media can be a powerful lever for ROI, squeezing massive value from even modest budgets. A 60-second commercial could run from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to produce and multiples of that to air nationally; the Fearless Girl statue cost a reported $250,000 and generated millions in free marketing.

Earned media is such a lure that some mega-brands go looking for it even in the absence of an organic talking point. Marketers like Burger King CMO Fernando Machado instruct their agency partners to create something compelling enough to grab headlines. “Since [Machado] has been at the helm, the type of work the brand is willing to put out into the world makes heads turn,” Stripling said. But amenable clients still expect strategy. Stripling and his team began by thinking about Burger King’s main competitor, and the artifice of one of its signature treats, the Happy Meal.

“The more we thought about the notion of happy and how social media has become a façade of endless, smiling selfies, the more we found comfort in the idea of celebrating how humans actually feel,” he said. They reasoned that Burger King’s longstanding slogan of “Have It Your Way” could take on a subversive slant in that context. “‘No one is happy all the time’ was the line that grounded the whole idea really early on,” he explained. They partnered with Mental Health America and tied the whole campaign to Mental Health Awareness Month.

The tantalizing prospect of a million aunts posting a brand’s heartwarming message to Facebook has inverted the industry’s self-conception.

Suddenly the world’s fifth largest fast food chain had registered a formal position on psychology — all thanks to a few North Carolinians. “While it did eventually take a small army to make,” Stripling said, the campaign “was conceived and led by myself and a small team of creatives in the MullenLowe Winston-Salem office.”

Purpose-driven ads are shaped by the convergence of commercial interests, but they also reflect personal histories, idiosyncrasies, and agendas. Brands increasingly address women’s issues in part because more women work in advertising than in the past. (The percentage of women creative directors in the U.S. has grown from 3 percent, in 2012, to 29 percent today, according to the 3% Movement.) Take #LikeAGirl, the beloved campaign for P&G’s feminine hygiene brand Always. Before #LikeAGirl was anything, it was a hashtag. Angel Capobianco, a copywriter at the London office of the ad agency Leo Burnett, thought it up when she stumbled across a BuzzFeed listicle called Why We Still Need Feminism, and saw a phrase she had heard many times growing up.

Capobianco had recently been briefed on a new project for Always. “It was basically just ‘Girls have a drop in confidence during puberty, and it’s twice as much as boys,’” she told me. “‘We want to fix it and also win at Cannes.’” (The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is advertising’s preeminent awards show.)

For Capobianco, spinning “like a girl” into a positive message seemed deceptively simple and powerful. It was a Big Idea: weighty enough to anchor a whole campaign, but light enough to travel in many directions. She shared the insight with her group at Leo Burnett London, which then shared it with employees from the Chicago and Toronto offices, who convened several marathon creative sessions to build on it. These ad hoc idea vehicles, sometimes called SWAT teams, are among the blunter instruments employed by agency networks to achieve imagination at scale.

Meanwhile, Always continued to focus the brunt of its marketing effort on the product-centric commercials that had sustained the brand for years. “That’s all they ever wanted to do: the blue goo demo that demonstrates that this product works,” Hmi Hmi Gibbs, the campaign’s art director, said. But with the suits’ attention trained elsewhere, bearing down on more expensive projects like the eye of Sauron, #LikeAGirl was permitted to become interesting. “‘It’s just going online,’” said Gibbs, paraphrasing the sentiment at P&G. “‘It’s just going on the web.’ And this was kind of new for them, so there weren’t as many eyes on it.”

Six months later, the film appeared online. Six months after that, a 60-second version debuted at Super Bowl XLIX. #LikeAGirl racked up tens of millions of views, rippled the culture with a provocative splash, and became the most awarded ad campaign of 2014. Gibbs noted that Always doesn’t run the blue goo commercials anymore: having built a new social platform, they can’t just revert to the old product demos. “I think it really changed the way they look at their advertising,” she said. “As long as people believe in your brand, they also believe in your product.”

#LikeAGirl never once alludes to menstruation, let alone the pads that are Always’ business. Is that a shrewd move? A duplicitous one? Whatever else, it seems to be the inevitable outcome of a marketing landscape that demands maximum cultural resonance. Blue goo by itself won’t garner thousands of mentions on Twitter, or send dozens of agency executives to the French Riviera, and so the gradual shift from selling a product to selling something else — a value, or ethos, or mission — is in some ways a natural consequence of brands infiltrating the web and imploring consumers to engage with them. Only a thin margin of the women who use them will “join the conversation” about a specific brand of maxi pads, but millions will join one about womanhood.

The question of what brands believe has remade advertising in the image of PR, driving corporations down roads of introspection usually reserved for politicians and Greta Thunberg. If brands are presumed to have a purpose then brand managers must either know it or underperform, and agencies must either express it or miss an opportunity.

Last year Gillette, another P&G brand, decided that its purpose was to celebrate men at their best — and to encourage them to be better. Derived from its 30-year-old tagline “The Best a Man Can Get,” there was a sturdy sort of logic to this ambition, a simple arithmetic. But taglines don’t easily translate into platforms. The work of finding a purpose too often slides into fabricating one.

“Agencies can help organizations identify the magic that’s already there, or that leadership wants to move towards, and they can help them articulate that purpose in a motivating, consumer-centric way, but the core pieces or ingredients need to exist strongly within that organization already,” said Kristian Henschel, a former Global Planning Director at Grey Group and the lead strategist on Gillette during the January launch of its controversial “We Believe” spot, which portrayed men intervening in instances of bullying and harassment.

Almost everyone I spoke to echoed the same sentiment: a progressive campaign will only succeed if it’s authentic to the brand, if it draws from some wellspring of purpose deep inside the forest of a given conglomerate. Gillette’s “We Believe” campaign made absolute sense for a brand that orbits the very notion of masculinity, recognizes its complicity in the construction of an outdated and possibly harmful aesthetic, and sees in this fraught social moment an opportunity to evolve. All of those considerations also made “We Believe” a crass mistake.

It is, to date, one of the most viewed commercials of all time, and one of the most polarizing. On YouTube the official video has some 804,000 upvotes and 1.5 million downvotes. Among its detractors are a buffet of MAGA chuds, mens’ righters, and red pill morons, but also a sizable chunk of schmoes who consider the ad’s message preachy and unearned, and who might be amenable to a #MeToo lesson if the pretense weren’t commercial. Among its supporters are people who believe the issue merits discussion, full stop, and who might embrace the Overton window-shifting abilities of a market cap in the hundreds of billions. One group sees a product, the other sees a purpose.

Political exposure is in many ways antithetical to growth, which assumes that absolutely anyone can become a customer. “Most brands want ‘everyone’ to love them,” said Rob Schwartz, of TBWA. “And nothing divides likes politics.” But in the present moment, companies may not feel like they have a choice, despite the potential for blowback. “Brands have an opportunity to be meaningful in people’s lives,” said Rob Reilly, the Global Creative Chairman of McCann, on a recent industry podcast. “Doing good for the world and making money don’t have to be mutually exclusive anymore.” He was repeating a platitude, but there was no reason to think he didn’t mean it.

Mac Schwerin writes about games, advertising, and pop culture.