Socially conscious advertising works, but not for the reasons you think

Originally Posted On
Campaign US

The debate about socially conscious branding continues to rage. On one end of the spectrum, powerhouses like Unilever have taken a strong positive stance, citing the fact that Unilever brands that support social causes are growing nearly 70 percent faster than those that don’t. On the other end of the spectrum are brands like Disney, who—despite a philanthropic agenda that is legion—have it in their DNA to hardly whisper when it comes to touting a socially conscious brand position.

A great deal of research suggests that people really want brands to take a strong public stand on social causes. And much research suggests that millennial and Gen Z markets especially want this. And yet the drama of brand missteps is also very real (the notoriously problematic Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner, removed immediately upon criticism, remains rife with ridicule over two years later). So marketers are faced with slippery questions: Is it worth it? Does socially conscious messaging actually drive hard metrics? What is the best way to do it smartly, to protect against backlash?

At RPA, we have a significant data resource that can help answer these questions. Specifically, we have a trove of in-depth ad-response data from over 80,000 people, covering ads from 11 top industries. The agency analyzes individual ads on a range of metrics, including something called the People Score—a proprietary metric based in psychological theory about how people form relationships with brands.

Contained within the larger data resource is a subset of ads (drawn from the alcohol, travel, and clothing industries) that are "socially conscious." These are ads where the communication explicitly focuses on a humanitarian or social issue like veteran recognition, immigrant rights, or water usage. The socially conscious subset runs the gamut in terms of message "riskiness" (e.g., it includes both the safer Budweiser "Brewed by Vets" and the riskier Airbnb "Expletive Interest").

To explore questions about socially conscious advertising, we compared the socially conscious ads to "control ads" matched on the same industries. The total sample size for analysis was N=4,500, covering a total of 30 ads. Responses for all ads came from a forced-exposure survey methodology.


The first thing we found was very clear. Socially conscious ads work. Really well. While ads from the alcohol, travel, and clothing industries—considered together—generally perform slightly below "all industry" norms on many key metrics, the socially conscious ads from these same industries performed significantly better.

For example, socially conscious ads received significantly higher ratings than control ads on likeability (6.44 vs. 5.77 on a 10-point scale), and significantly more positive sentiment in open-ended comments (52% vs. 35%). Perhaps most important, they outperformed control ads on purchase consideration (3.43 vs. 3.29 on a 5-point scale)—a metric many marketers see as the ultimate barometer of effectiveness.


To understand how these ads work, we ran them through our People Score model. The People Score is an overarching ad score composed of three subscores, which relate to the three stages of relationship formation: orientation (meet the brand), exploration (get to know the brand), and investment (commit to the brand). The model helps us understand where an ad is working best in terms of growing customer relationships.

Our analysis showed that socially conscious ads scored better than control ads on the overall People Score. But this gap could be almost entirely credited to differences on the exploration subscore, which were gargantuan (socially conscious ads scored in the 80th percentile on exploration, while control ads scored in the 40th percentile). In other words, socially conscious ads are exceptional when it comes to the fuzzy stage between first impression and close of deal; their special strength seems to lie in holding people’s interest during the crucial "second date."

Next we parsed verbatim responses, using machine-learning, to understand precisely how these ads were holding people’s interest. The analysis showed that, compared to control ads, socially conscious ads elicited longer and more detailed verbatims, with significantly more analytical language (e.g., more statements like "I think" and "I wonder"). People weren’t just emotionally touched by the socially conscious work; they were also engaging in something that psychologists call cognitive elaboration­—making connections between ideas, considering alternative points of view, and asking lots of questions.

Common wisdom suggests that socially conscious ads work by being attention-getting or by tugging hard on emotions. But our results show they work for a third and totally different reason: because they get people’s cognitive gears spinning. These ads appear, in fact, to elicit a certain kind of reciprocity: The ads are thoughtful, and people’s responses to the ads are thoughtful too. In short, these ads inspire much more cognitive elaboration than other ads, and this elaboration engages people and ultimately drives up consideration.


While we did not test any extremely polarizing ads in this research, it’s noteworthy that we did not see significant lambasting of ads, nor any evidence that socially conscious ads are held to unique standards. That said, different dynamics could well be at play with highly controversial ads. And, as with any piece of communication, factors like brand legacy, potential press coverage, and target audience composition should always be carefully weighed.


We conducted a last piece of analysis to understand why some socially conscious ads work better than others at ultimately driving consideration. The analysis found that the most successful socially conscious ads do three things:

  • They stimulate exceptionally high levels of cognitive elaboration. There is no ceiling to this effect; the more elaboration, the better.
  • They are positive and hopeful. Ads that elicit guilt, worry, or other negative emotions rarely do as well; the top-performing ads promote positivity.
  • They inspire people to think of themselves as part of a community rather than as an individual. When ads inspire communal versus individualized thinking (marked by words like "we" and "together" in verbatim responses), consideration soars.  

Socially conscious advertising may not make sense for every brand at every time. But there are compelling reasons to consider it as part of any communication portfolio. It just might get people to think about your brand a bit more.

Hillary Haley is the senior-VP and director of behavioral science at RPA.