Can Advertising Save The World?

Joseph Dumont
Questus’ Joseph Dumont addresses SXSW ECO attendees about transparency in advertising. Credit: Greg Harman

Amid crisis of confidence in corporations, ‘The Naked Brand’ argues advertising should focus on transparency

(First published at Guardian Sustainable Business.)

“Traditional advertising, I think, is finished,” Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard says in the documentary film, The Naked Brand, which premiered on cable TV for the first time last month.

Drawing on interviews with business leaders at UnileverUnder ArmourZappos and Patagonia, among others, the 2012 documentary produced by leaders at the ad firm Questus argues that social-media revolution and mounting environmental concerns have left corporations with little room to hide any misbehavior.

That’s what great advertising is for, right? Not according to the Questus team.

“Ad agencies historically have not done anything to help save the world,” said Joseph Dumont, opening a panel at the Austin environmental conference SXSW Eco on Monday improbably titled: Can Advertising Save the World? The junior partner at Questus and a co-producer of The Naked Brand, says the answer is yes.

It helps that companies today can “go green” and still stand a good chance at making a buck. The quests for good and for profit are “aligning for the first time ever,” Dumont claims. “The equilibrium of green and ‘green’ is here.”

Take Under Armor. Since rolling out its fabric line made from recycled materials, UA Green, in 2011, the company has woven synthetic fibers – made from 2m recycled plastic bottles – into its products and sustained a consistent 20% quarterly growth.

Patagonia has taken on growth-dependent capitalism more directly through a series of transparency and social responsibility measures, including its Common Threads Initiative, in which it asked customers to only buy what they really need; The Footprint Chronicles, in which it shares stories about its supply chain; and its newly launched campaign,The Responsible Economy, which aims to find a new economic model not based solely on consumption. It has seen its profits increase 38% during the last two years.

“What we’re saying is, successful companies of the future will improve people’s lives, period,” Dumont told SXSW ECO attendees. “These are not ‘green’ stories. These are successful stories that wove eco-friendly into their business model. And they’re absolutely killing it.”

As The Naked Brand points out, the erosion of public trust in big business has become evident everywhere: the global anti-capitalist Occupy protestsanti-sweatshop campaigns targeting Apple in 2012 and waves of poor product reviews saturating problematic product pages on sites like

But to suggest advertising is prepared to fix the problem by telling the truth? Let’s just say there are still doubters among us.

“We slice and dice the truth, without necessarily communicating the rest of the truth,” experienced ad man, critic and author Jonathan Salem Baskin told the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council at its annual conference in New York last week, according to Adweek. “We’ve also embellished it. Sometimes we ignore it completely … Advertising today is a truth-free zone.”

Jessica Rich, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection bureau, has specifically promised to crack down on misleading claims about companies’ environmental benevolence. The commission, which created its first green guide in 1992, released revised guidelines in 2012 that take on terms such as “degradable”, “compostable” and “recyclable” – but not “sustainability”, which the commission deemed too vague to have a single, generally understood meaning.

Unsurprisingly, consumers want more than promises from the companies they do business with. In a survey of 11,000 people across eight countries, PR company Edelman found that 90% of responders want corporations to be as transparent as possible. Perhaps the other 10% are scared of what they’ll discover.

“There is a crisis of confidence in corporations,” CEO Richard Edelman wrote last month during the release of Edelman’s Better Business Initiative, which urges the adoption of “universal themes”, including “performance with purpose”, “responsible employer”, “fair dealings” and “guardian of future generations”.

Clearly, 13-year-old Questus is not the only one calling for a more honest way of communicating. But Dumont says his company is fully embracing the idea.

“We want to tell the truthful stories about why these companies are great versus a company that wants to be great and hires an ad agency to manufacture a fictional tale,” Dumont told me after his presentation at SXSW Eco. “We believed at the time that this was something to differentiate not only our agency, but our whole thesis and what we wanted to be 10 years from now, which is be that leader of the revolution. … It gelled our team more than anything gelled our team at any point in the last 13 years.”

And while the team hasn’t dropped any existing clients for failing to meet an environmental standard, they have turned down a few.

“Even when the economy really imploded and everyone was looking for whatever they could get, we got a call from a tobacco company and we said no,” Rosenblum said in a telephone interview. Questus also passed up a major oil company, according to Dumont.

Given the last word in The Naked Brand, Alex Bogusky – who refashioned himself into a consumer advocate from one of the US’s most successful ad executives, launching socially responsible business accelerator Common in 2011 – suggests the endpoint of this new age of transparency may be nothing less than a massive shift of power.

“If you look at the history of the world, somehow humanity has scrapped and crawled and gotten a little bit more power and a little bit more control all the way, but it hasn’t been easy,” he says. “The great powers have been the kings. Then there was the church. There was the state. And now there’s corporations. I don’t think it can end with corporations as the greatest power on earth. I think it ends with humanity itself.”