Advertising and human rights do not traditionally go hand-in-hand. Marketing campaigns primarily exist to generate profit, after all, and some even work against cultural equality in pursuit of monetary gain. For example, an advertisement might objectify a woman to paint a picture about the masculinity of a certain brand of car or alcohol. But there are ways marketing and advertising professionals can gear their work toward social benefit. In fact, some already are.
The detrimental connections between advertising and human rights have long been documented. In 2014, the Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights discussed the topic at the 69th U.N. General Assembly. The address noted the problematic impact advertising — especially in its more stealth forms — can have on people’s ability to have freedom of opinion and expression. It advocated prohibiting advertising from certain protected environments, such as public and private schools.
What investigations into the potential negative influence of marketing on culture also point to, however, is the immense power advertising has in dictating cultural values. Advertisers and marketers can harness this power to enact social change in a positive direction.
In an essay published on Medium, Omid Scheybani looks into how advertising has recently entered the sphere of promoting progressive social values. Scheybani acknowledges that advertising, as it functions now, is not typically a leader in social change. However, he suggests that there is a sweet spot in advertising content that can both appeal to values of a consumer base and normalize certain cultural practices, behaviors, or family arrangements that might not yet be seen as mainstream.
Scheybani references, for example, the Cheerios commercial that ran in 2013 featuring a mixed race family. The advertisement offered an instance of representation of a familial makeup common to American life but rarely portrayed on television. Racist backlash to the spot led to a cultural conversation about this very lack of representation and the discrimination faced by mixed race families. Soon after, Cheerios also saw an increase in sales.
Other organizations are more deliberately using marketing techniques to address human rights issues. WaterAid, for example, uses a marketing-style approach to increase access to the human rights of clean drinking water and sanitation. The company used audience analysis to find out what obstacles local governments face in carrying out these aims, and content targeting to design their materials in a way that would maximize likelihood of change.
An infographic from IR Online, American University’s International Relations Online Program, illustrates the six themes of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the U.N. in 1948. These include dignity and justice, development, environment, culture, gender and participation. The words aren’t traditionally associated with the goals of advertising and marketing, but many of them can be hugely impacted by the field.
The relationship between advertising and human rights of course remains historically fraught. The question of individuality and freedom of opinion and expression is complicated in a global consumer-capitalist society. However, within the currently operating societal framework, there are ways advertisers and marketers can use the immense power of commercials to promote progressive values, and use the consumer-focused tactics of their field to work towards the dissemination of human rights.