If you’re like most people, the term “socially conscious ads” makes your eyes glaze over. That’s because so many of them are boring, cloying, exhaustingly sincere. They mean well. But meaning well isn’t enough when you’re trying to get across an important message. You have to use the old-fashioned tools of Madison Avenue: startling concepts, flawless execution, contagious ideas, and a little bit (or a lot) of swagger. The 4 ads below, while all being socially conscious, transcend the tired tropes of their genre. They’re great ads, plain and simple. Not just entertaining, but transformative and — ultimately — unforgettable.
Agency: Leo Burnett London
Director: Chris Hewitt
The most powerful thing about this ad for the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) is what it doesn’t show. By juxtaposing heartwarmingly hopeful visuals with a chilling voice-over about one child’s experience with abuse, this ad simultaneously has a sobering weight and an inspirational levity. It throws warm and cold emotions together, which gives the piece a devastating kind of energy. Hot + cold is, of course, how you make a tornado. Try watching this ad and not feeling a thump in your chest when Alfie tells you he’s an astronaut.
Production Company: Paranoid
Directors: The Vikings
The wind is having an existential crisis in this brilliantly simple ad for wind energy. For years nobody understood him. He was starting to wonder if he even understood himself. Then one day, through a chance meeting, a man helps him discover his true purpose in the world: turning windmills. Told deadpan through an interview and a series of hilarious scenarios, this ad manages to create real empathy for its anthropomorphic main character. You feel something for him. In the end, this little ad is actually telling one of the most powerful stories there is: the story of acceptance. It’s a testament to the power of a great concept paired with a great performance.
Agency: Leo Burnett
Director: Lauren Greenfield
If you saw this ad when it came out a few years ago, we’re sure you’ve never forgotten it. It’s not a particularly great piece of filmmaking. But it’s a particularly great piece of thinking. You come out of it different than you went in. There aren’t many ads like that. Maybe 10. This one is simultaneously inspiring and a bit guilt inducing, implicating the viewer through the initial comedy before turning the entire concept — not to mention the entire “like a girl” epithet — on its head. It’s a shocking bait and switch, and it’s proof that a truly great ad can do so much more than sell a product.
Client: SickKids Hospital
Director: Mark Zibert
Let’s end with a bang. “SickKids VS: Undeniable” has gallons of something almost every other cause-based ad lacks entirely: swagger. It’s gritty. Dangerous. Bloody. Decidedly PG-13. It doesn’t pull its punches. But then, neither do childhood illnesses. This ad doesn’t appeal to your pity. It appeals to your rage. And it does so while brilliantly overturning the helpless patient paradigm. You won’t think about sick kids the same way after watching this. We’ve never seen anything like it.