Insights from Cannes – why fun creativity is the best way to sell ethics

As most of you already know, this year’s big winner is a social awareness campaign for the Australian Metro, ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ (well done McCann Melbourne).

It proves that if you want to get a social message across, fun and using the power of entertainment works best, not shock tactics of tear jerkers.

The integrated campaign has won five grand prix awards, the most that a campaign has ever notched up at the awards, including film, radio, PR, direct and integrated categories.


It just beat another social campaign, ‘Meet the Superhumans’ for Channel 4. Of course last year’s big winner was also a socially responsible campaign about ethical farming methods for Chipolte. Another brilliant ad from last year, and one I think is much better than the Chiplotte idea, was the one for the Rainforest Alliance, ‘Follow the Frog’. Brilliantly written, and directed and just joyous to watch, it won Best Nonprofit Video of 2012 in the DoGooder Nonprofit Video Awards.

So does this mean social causes make better ad briefs, or are social causes just resorting to better ideas?

I’ve just had the privilege to speak and chair a day on ethics and creativity at the Cannes festival, with some great speakers from some great organisations and companies – ACT Responsibly, Creativity for Good, The Ad Council, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Y&R, and Airbnb.

Throughout the day the key message was, if you want to create socially responsible campaigns that work, they have to be creativevery creative. Technology, techniques, platforms, channels, all come second to a big fat idea.

The second learning was that, as we all know, these campaigns can come in many tones: dramatic, shocking, ironic, thought provoking, emotional and funny. The number one emotion that seems to deliver big success is joy. Make people smile and the message gets through. The least effective is a combination of guilt & shock, because it makes people feel bad.

Fun creativity also gets under the barriers. If we ever have to have a difficult conversation with someone we’ll often start with a smile, and soften them up with a light-hearted tone.

‘Dumb Ways to Die’ was created to reduce accidents and deaths on the Metro. It could easily have been a serious campaign with threats of death. But it took a radically alternative approach and a brave client (remember those) to sign it off. It went for comic book humour.

Of course, Comic Relief is one of the most successful fund raising projects of all time, having helped over 400m people, proving that funny makes us give more than serious. Any marketing managers of NGOs out there want to argue why they are still doing dull, serious campaigns?

DWtD is also one of those rare ideas that just went mega viral, and is a classic example of ‘advertainment’ but on several levels. First the song (which stated as a radio ad) has become a success in its own right. Second, the addition of the charming and funny animations has made it an intent phenomenon. The campaign has also been well extended into posters, a booklet, materials for schools and a game. Plus it’s had loads of PR.

Additionally, it’s not just been working for our friends down under  – the message has been influencing people globally.


Another key factor in successful campaigns is that today’s ideas need to have legs, they need to be adaptable to other platforms, which makes having big ideas even more of a challenge for tradition thinkers. And the need to enter social media (C2C) is critical.

But what is still key, before you put pen to paper, is consumer insight. You still need to understand your audience. Relevance goes without saying, but the message has to have some meaning to an audience to engage them. When the consumer asks, ‘what does that mean to me?” do you know the answer?

It’s no surprise that most consumers do care about both the environment, and even more so about people. And they prefer to buy from brands that have a positive purpose, with ethics as part of their ethos rather than companies who think “share holder value” is the only thing that matters. Research has shown that companies with a positive purpose out perform bean counters. So there is hope!


Getting back to joy, and the message that was also consistent during the day at Cannes, was that in an age of data it can be too easy to forget that we are dealing with humans, not robots, and therefore human emotions. Caring is not a functional need, it’s an emotional one, and requires an emotional approach to engage. A logic based argument, no matter how pretty the execution, just won’t sell.


We had some great examples of the many different kinds of ethics that were embracing creativity, from community minded business models like Airbnb and to campaigns like Sunchips, Pepsi, Coke, Tide and of course… Dumb Ways to Die.

Getting marketing for any area of ethical messaging right, from NGOs and social campaigns to brands trying to convey their ethical messages, is a complex and skilled art. It is also more sophisticated than the average soap powder campaign. But companies that use ethical causes like promotional bait be warned – they are quickly spotted by consumers.

A good example of a brand managing it well is Tide (a P&G soap powder brand not well known in the UK). It’s got a history of good ads – last years Superbowl was a corker. But after Hurricane Katrina they came up with a simple, yet powerful idea. They couldn’t do anything about food or housing, but they could help displaced people feel better by cleaning their clothes. The poor victims had been left in the clothes they were standing in when the storm hit, and had been wearing them for days.

So the Tide team sent trucks down with washing machines and a team of helpers. A small act, which made a massive difference! The key here was that it was relevant, and relevance is essential for credibility. But they didn’t publicise it – not until a year later, by which time it’d already been talked about. This added to the credibility, after all, it had been done as a genuine act of support, not a promotional marketing gimmick.


Many campaigns can create a spike in the chart, but keeping the campaign up there in public view for a long time is a challenge. Fine if you solve the problem in a 6 week period, but we all know most causes take decades, if not a lifetime, to solve.

Consumers quickly spot brands using ethics as a promotional tool or as part of their PR spin, so beware, if you take on a cause it has to be long term.


I’ve tried not to comment on life in the Cannes lane – well on the Croisset as they call it. But given were a speaker, anyone who’s been there will probably join me in questioning the ethics of places like the Carlton Terrace charging 11€ for a diet Coke, or over 400€ for a large bottle of wine. Well the good news is that if you visit you could set up a campaign group to put pressure on the Cannes venues to charge fairer prices next year (I’d also include the Costa bar at Nice airport who charge 3.40 for a 80p bottle of water).


On the subject of takeaways, one of the case studies used was Domino’s Pizza. It was a good example how, in today’s social media world, you can use honesty and consumer input to reinvent your brand. Too many companies are scared to tell the truth, but when your pizza is as bad as theirs used to be, coming clean actually win’s the public over. The overall message was – it pays to be honest and listen.

Another point that was made, is that it’s important that what the brand believes, aligns with what the consumer believes, or there’ll be no connection and engagement. A brilliant example was AMEX’s campaign in support of small local shop keepers, “buy local, shop small”.

But with so many causes and so many brands all fighting for our attention, you need to be smart and creative to stand out. Especially if you want to get into the C2C market and go viral. You need to entertain and bring joy with meaning – do that, and you’ll be on your way to winning a Cannes Lion next year.



ACT Responsibly

The Ad Council


Dumb Ways to Die