When brands get serious, nothing should be left to chance

—Advertising addressing public health issues needs very careful consideration of unintended consequences for all audiences, says Eric Blais—

“Quite honestly, as with 90% of things we do in this area, we won’t know until it’s out there.” It was a shockingly candid admission from a respected communications expert with extensive experience in smoking cessation campaigns.

One would think that the mountain of academic research on the subject would help ensure a reasonable degree of advertising effectiveness. Clearly, this was a case of putting it out there and hoping for the best. I’m not privy to the campaign’s results (assuming the true impact on quit rates can be accurately measured), though I hope it was money well spent.

But good social marketing campaigns, particularly those addressing public health issues, shouldn’t be left to chance.

Those who create them usually rely on scientific evidence that the adopted communications strategy, working in concert with other elements of a comprehensive program, will have a social impact by getting people to change existing behaviours or adopt new ones. It’s no easy task. And it takes time.

But obviously that’s not always the case. Social marketing is no more an exact science than product marketing.

A failed campaign to sell a brand of soap has no significant impact—good or bad—other than perhaps on the careers of those who developed it. However, a social marketing campaign, even one that might have achieved its primary objective, can have unintended consequences. Some might even be harmful, as they often deal with deep human emotions that should be treated carefully and responsibly.

Take the Dove Self-Esteem Project, which launched its Campaign for Kids Online Safety earlier this month. The Self-Esteem Project is described by Unilever as “the biggest provider of self-esteem education in the world aimed at helping young people build body confidence.” According to the press release, the new campaign is a call for action to address the youth mental health crisis caused by social media.

It is a multifaceted program, including a strong advocacy component calling on lawmakers to act to force a safer environment on social media. In the U.S., the effort includes pushing for the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a bill calling for more transparency of social media apps and algorithms, and a duty for social media platforms to prevent and mitigate harm to minors.

And we need it. It’s too easy for a young person to end up on TikTok watching a video from a paid influencer promoting a weight loss product and making claims Health Canada would never allow.

Or worse, they might watch a clip from Andy Cohen’s late-night Bravo show in which he tells Real Housewives of New Jersey star Dolores Catania: “You’re looking thin. Ozempy?” (a reference to the prescription weight-loss drug Ozempic). Marisol Patton, seated next to Catania, adds: “That’s the amped-up version. That’s the fast-forward to Skinnyville.”

The most visible piece of the new Dove program is a powerful three-minute video entitled the “Cost of Beauty.” It chronicles the real story of a young girl whose mental health has been hurt by social media.

It is intended to illustrate the scale of the problem and drive action to protect the next generation. It was developed in consultation with mental health and disordered eating experts at National Alliance for Eating Disorders and Project HEAL.

I do not question the expertise and careful stewardship of this project by these two organizations. I also do not question the good intentions of Unilever in moving into advocacy to promote legislative change. As Dove CMO Alessandro Manfredi said in a press release, “We have a responsibility to act and support a safer environment on social media, helping protect young people’s mental health.”

As an advocacy campaign, it might mobilize many and get the petition signed. But how will it be received and interpreted by those suffering from what it depicts? Mental health and addiction issues are complex, requiring comprehensive, tailored treatment by trained professionals. I hope its creators really did their homework before putting it “out there.”

I also hope that the experts Unilever consulted are confident that those who might be at risk—the young girls, and boys—will watch until the end when they’re invited to text HEALING to 741741 or go to findEDhelp.com.

In the right hands, advertising can be a force for good and social change. And Dove’s advertising is obviously well intentioned. But when it comes to serious public health issues requiring comprehensive evidence-based solutions, we should hope that regulators, not just soap manufacturers, take the appropriate steps to protect the public.

Eric Blais