Can Advertising Change the World?

One of the biggest criticisms of advertising is that it sells people things that they don’t need. This type of criticism paints the ad person as just a schmuck for hire that will sell anything without regards to ethics. It points to historical cases of duplicitous advertising and marketing: P.T. Barnum gets crowds to line up to see the head of a monkey crudely sewn onto the body of a fish;  Lydia E. Pinkham inserts a non-existent sign under the Brooklyn Bridge;  Listerine invents the nonscientific term halitosis in order to sell mouthwash; De Beers convinces us that a “diamond is forever,” ensuring that diamonds don’t flood the market and lose their value. The list goes on and on.

Now, I’m not here to argue that any of the above cases are ethical or that present day advertising is consistently ethical. Rather, I argue that advertising reflects the times. Change happens on a societal level and advertising slowly comes to reflect that change. Ads have always reflected society’s ideal vision–for good or for bad.

The modern day ideal American family isn’t just Anglo-Saxon–it’s all shades, all genders, all theologies– and advertising is slowly starting to reflect that. For example, in the advertising of the 1950’s, the only place where you would see a wife was in the kitchen. Today, as women take their rightful place as power players in the economy, it’s not uncommon to see a women on TV in business attire.

With all that in mind: Do I think advertising can change the world for better? You’d be surprised to know that I think that it absolutely can. It’s not going to create radical change, but it’s a powerful vehicle that can accelerate change at certain points in history.

Some very recent examples of advertising being used for good:

1. A record 55% of Americans now support gay marriage. Unfortunately, mainstream advertising still seems to consider showing a gay couple as controversial and political–gay people  are almost non-existent in ads. However, Amazon was brave enough to release an ad that includes a married man that happens to be gay.


One thing that really warmed my heart after the Boston Marathon tragedy was how Hill Holliday created The One Fund in seven hours. The bombing had barely happened and the folks of Hill Holliday were able to pull together the resolve to create  a unified fund for the victims of the bombing.

3. The Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” displays the negative results of America’s unhealthy perception of an ideal woman. It a vanguard of sorts in representing America’s changing ideals.

Hill Holliday Changes the World One Smile at a Time


Bostonians see all types of weather patterns. Most involve the color gray. But excuse us if our outlook isn’t quite as dull. You see, we tend to be a surprisingly happy lot. Yet even we have our share of loneliness.

That’s where the Samaritans come in. The Samaritans is the only suicide prevention organization in greater Boston. They aim to: “alleviate despair, isolation, distress and suicidal feelings among individuals in our community, 24 hours a day; educate the public about suicide prevention; and to reduce the stigma associated with suicide.”

The Samaritans are perhaps best recognized for their anti-suicide signs on bridges.  Wanting to increase visibility beyond that and to attract additional investors, they approached Boston based ad agency Hill Holliday with a request for some pro bono work.

According to a recent Boston Globe article, Hill Holliday thought that the Samaritans would seem less somber of an organization if people recognized the humanity behind their services.

“…people always think of Sagamore Bridge — if you’re feeling depressed, call the Samaritans. As a result, the Samaritans were always linked to suicide, to depression,” said Hill Holliday CEO, Mike Sheehan.

That’s where a big idea came in. Why not shift the focus to being about making Boston even happier? To do this Hill Holliday would set up multiple social experiments aimed at simply making people smile. Not only could the average person get behind this, but it would also increase visibility for potential Samaritans investors.

It all started with Hi Five in the 5th on September 22nd, a social experiment that asked everyone in attendance at a Red Sox game to high five their neighbors. The result was just what Hill Holliday had hoped for—toothy smiles all around. Other experiments followed: orange giveaways at the Government Center stop,  welcome parties at North Station, and elevator a capellas. More toothy smiles followed.

It was all tied together on On the site, people can upload the locations in Boston that make them happy and listen to Mayor Menino sing the pothole blues.

How effective is the Happier Boston campaign? In hindsight it’s hard to tell from an analytics perspective. After all, it’s hard to measure happiness based on a few contagious smiles. But this shoestring-budgeted campaign shows that enduring big ideas are still relevant in the modern world.  It understands that everyone wants to feel connected in this world—that no one wants to be lonely.