Cartwright to Brands: Look Inward Before Responding to Social Issues

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Keith Cartwright, the creative force behind such powerful statement ads as P&G’s “The Look” and “The Choice,” shares his insights and advice to brands and agencies on how to most authentically respond in times of crisis.

Last month, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in MinneapolisProcter & Gamble released “The Choice” — a powerful ad that calls for white Americans to not only be aware of systemic racism, but to rise up and act to dismantle it.

“The Choice” — a collaboration between the agencies Grey and Cartwright — is a clear standout in a sea of brand responses to Floyd’s killing and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the latest in a string of thought-provoking P&G ads aimed at drawing attention to pertinent social issues.

When we asked Damon Jones, P&G’s Chief Communications Officer, why the company felt compelled to speak out on these issues, he said: “As the world’s leading advertiser, we know that our voice matters; so, we’re using it to move the masses — from passive observers to advocates and activists for change. … These videos raising awareness of the impact of racial bias is simply one step on this journey; and one way in which we are acting to help build stronger, more inclusive communities.”

For many in the sustainability space, the focus of the work has mostly been on the environmental side of the equation. But the climate crisis, the COVID crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement have all helped to illuminate the importance of the social side of sustainability; and the need to create a resilient and inclusive society, with racial and social equity, to ensure a  safe, healthy, flourishing future for all. And as we at Sustainable Brands have long asserted, brands have a direct line to consumers — and with that comes both the ability and the responsibility to use their influence and reach to help shape that future.

We recently spoke with Cartwright founder and creative wunderkind Keith Cartwright — who is also a co-founder of Saturday Morning, an agency focused on social change; which also created P&G’s 2019 “The Look” ad — to hear his insights on how to (and how not to) produce truly impactful, change-making creative.

Cartwright says more clients are recognizing the need to speak out and act on social issues. His advice to brands and agencies on how best to respond in times of crisis?

“I think the best thing that a client can do right now is, look internally,” he said. “It’s easy to give away money — and it’s good to give away money — but if your organization [wants to take] some sort of legitimate action and it’s just giving money to organizations, are they really doing as much as they can?”

Cartwright noted that the correlation between sustainability and inequality starts at the community and neighborhood level. In poor neighborhoods where systemic racism thrives, people of color face health issues from being near highways, educational inequality and lack of access to healthy foods because their neighborhoods are food deserts

He suggested that when looking internally, companies should be asking how they can be part of a larger solution that might include opening stores in food deserts — which then creates job opportunities, provides access to better nutrition and can drive other systemic improvements.

“[Some] organizations are looking at themselves and saying, who are we? What does our business stand for, and how does our business model relate to what’s going on in the world? How can what we stand for, be a voice in this movement?

“A lot of businesses don’t know how to speak in these moments, because they’ve never really thought about it. So, the first question that we ask is, what have you done in this space? How do you want to show up, and why do you feel you have relevance in this space? And then we start to dig in and either develop or amplify that voice, so that when they do make a statement, it feels legitimate.”

In P&G’s case — not only have the company and its brands been speaking out on social issues such as racismgender bias and toxic masculinity for years, it has backed it up with a number of initiatives aimed at advancing equality, and shifting a range of other harmful paradigms, as well.

Cartwright also stressed the importance of showing audiences something new. Of particular pertinence to the environmental and social impact space, so much emphasis is placed on the problems we face that there’s fatigue around images of plastic-choked beaches and wildlife, polluted skies and decimated forests. To produce truly impactful messaging, creative teams need to stop regurgitating doomsday images and messages, and find new stories and perspectives that need to be told — think Starbucks’ 2019 ad featuring a transgender teen; Microsoft’s “Changing the Game” campaign; or the campaign around India’s Open Door Project. Otherwise, Cartwright says, the messages will likely no longer resonate.

“Beyond what’s going on right now; in general, with any messages that you try to put out in the world — we’re not going to do any service to our clients by putting something out that feels safe that has already been said over and over again.”

Since the social and environmental turmoil in the world will only persist, it’s imperative for brands to find an authentic voice with which to represent themselves and to drive actions that align with their values. So, despite the turmoil, Cartwright says he’s been energized by this latest paradigm shift and the work that it’s inspiring.

“This moment is actually really exciting for people I’m working with, because we’re proud of the work,” Cartwright says. “So, that gives us inspiration to get up and go to work every day.”

Written by:

JENNIFER ELKS, Managing Editor, Sustainable Brands
ETIENNE WHITE, VP of Brands for Good, Sustainable Brands