For the greater good, writes Geeta Rao in BrandSutra

Come awards season, you are likely to find creative teams and agencies looking for willing NGOs to fulfil their public service advertising goals and win some awards. It is a win-win for everyone. The agency gets a chance to show its creative skills for a social cause, a separate category at the big awards, the NGO gets some pro bono work, a willing client may be roped in to sponsor the ad’s release and earn some socially responsible points. If the campaign wins an award, the cause gets amplified.

Public service advertising, by definition, is advertising that is done for “a non-commercial purpose”, i.e., you are not selling a brand or product for consumption, but a cause that works for the creation of a civil society, for human rights and social development.

Imagine employing the skills that can move millions of people to switch from a hot cooked breakfast to eating Kellogg's, the skills that can move a tea-drinking population to adopt a cafe culture or spend billions on fast fashion, for the greater good.

Sounds like a dream plan. Everyone wants to do something good for society or be perceived as doing good, to give back in some fashion. That is both at the individual and corporate level. On the other hand, some of this could be virtue signalling. The reality is that people find it easier to spend money or effort on something that benefits them or betters their life directly; so your powers of persuasion have to work much harder for public service advertising.


In an earlier century, townships grew around large manufacturing or production plants which often employed tens of thousands of people. The company then looked after the town, setting up educational facilities and hospitals and so on.

Large organizations continue to do this. This is a corporate duty - the cost of keeping your workers happy. But this can become the basis of a larger community and social outreach commitment, and have a long term impact on the social development of a region beyond the factory.

The obvious thing is to look at your own industry and look at the upliftment of people and areas impacted by your industry. If not, you may want to choose a cause you feel strongly about. The choice is not easy, because each cause needs help.

Is it more important to talk about cancer or is it more important to talk about tuberculosis? Is it more important to talk about the rights of animals in the forest or is it more important to talk about the rights of tribals? Is it more important to talk about air pollution or is it more important to talk about water conservation? Should you fund medical research to solve a health problem or should you just fund the treatment of people suffering from that disease?

Charity versus philanthropy, raising awareness versus sensitization, fund-raising versus funds disbursement, impact assessment – there is a lot to consider when you make a CSR or corporate social responsibility pledge. Now, most large corporations have full-fledged CSR departments and dedicated teams to manage their social responsibility goals. The way you choose to communicate this, and what happens once you do it, are both important.


What happens when your ad sensitizes people, but the listed helpline number does not work? The ad may win an award, but hasn’t worked for the person who needs help. What happens if a huge amount of funds are generated, but you don’t have the resources to deploy them? Or they don’t reach the people they were meant for? Do you evaluate the impact of your contribution to a cause, or do you just walk away after signing a corporate cheque? As an organization, do you live up to what you support publicly?

Many people come forward to support women’s empowerment programmes, but don’t employ enough women or create opportunities for women in their own organisations. This may not come under your legal or social responsibility, but it does become your moral responsibility.

(Geeta Rao has been Regional Creative Director, Ogilvy and has devoted many column inches and years to advertising and brands.)

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