The primary objective of traditional corporate-image advertising is to build a favorable image and keep the advertiser's name in the public eye; advocacy advertising, by contrast, attempts to tackle potentially controversial issues and present arguments that project the advertiser in a positive light. It may also attempt to influence public opinion on an issue that directly affects the advertiser's business.
Other terms that often are used synonymously with advocacy advertising include public affairs advertising, issue (or public issue) advertising, viewpoint advertising, opinion advertising, adversary advertising and controversy advertising.
Historically in countries with strong advertising traditions, advocacy advertising by some types of organizations (such as social welfare organizations or labor unions) has been accepted without many questions asked. Similarly, political interest groups and organizations have used paid ads to express their viewpoints. In the business sector, corporations traditionally have articulated their views on controversial matters through collective bodies, such as industry groups or professional associations.
While advocacy campaigns were not uncommon in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, scholars and practitioners generally agree that the early '70s saw a sharp increase in the use of advocacy advertising in the U.S. and Europe.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were characterized by heightened public awareness of environmental and occupational health and safety issues. This concern was coupled with a heightened distrust of large corporations, which were seen as resisting pollution controls and workplace safety measures in order to protect profits. At the same time, the consumer movement spearheaded by Ralph Nader and others served to mobilize public opinion against big business.
Distrust of large corporations increased even more during the 1973 energy crisis, when the oil industry was accused of creating sham fuel shortages and raking in windfall profits at the public's expense. Several oil companies, most notably Mobil and Chevron, used advertising to counteract hostile public opinion.
Mobil began a series of "op-ed" ads in 1971. In 1973, Mobil's public affairs department took full control of the creative work for the campaign and, during the energy crisis, Mobil advertising aggressively defended the viewpoints of the company and the oil industry. Similarly, some of Chevron's advertising in the mid-1970s provided information about the actual profits made by the oil company.
Advocacy advertising is seldom directed toward the general public. Rather, it is usually targeted toward narrowly defined segments, such as individuals or groups opposing the advertiser's viewpoint; individuals or groups supporting the advertiser's viewpoint; uncommitted individuals who can be persuaded to support the advertiser's viewpoint; key decision makers, such as legislators and government officials; and key "influencers," such as journalists, educators and intellectuals.
The target audience of a campaign is often reflected in the media choices made by advertisers. Advocacy advertisers have traditionally used print media—and especially newspapers—as the primary means of disseminating their messages. Following Mobil's campaign in the 1970s, advocacy advertising in the U.S. became virtually synonymous with ads on the "op-ed" page of newspapers. In Great Britain and Canada as well, advocacy advertising has been placed primarily in newspapers, with some going to the major newsweeklies. In the 1990s, however, other media—most notably TV—began to gain acceptance as a forum for advocacy ads.
U.S. advertisers such as Chevron and Archer Daniels Midland regularly used TV for advocacy ads in the 1980s and '90s, although the tone of such advertising was mild compared with the aggressive stance of other advertisers, which tended to use print. ADM was a longtime sponsor of several political talk shows broadcast by U.S. TV networks on Sunday mornings. While the audience share of such programs is not very high, the shows are keenly watched by influencers such as journalists and legislators, who constitute a crucial target audience segment for advocacy ads.
Benetton is one exception to the usual pattern. Because its advertising is visual rather than verbal, the company has used magazines and billboards rather than newspapers and TV for advocacy ads.
The newspapers that have probably benefited the most from advocacy advertising are those with a strong national reputation, such as The New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. The editorially conservative Washington Times has been a beneficiary of advocacy advertising targeted toward influential residents of the District of Columbia.
Critics are concerned about the increasing amounts of money spent on advocacy campaigns that attempt to influence elections. Expenditures on advocacy advertising remain outside the restrictions placed on regular campaign fund-raising and spending. Some therefore fear that businesses and special interest groups with vast financial resources may be able to unfairly influence the electoral process. Some highly visible advocacy advertisers that tried to influence elections in the U.S. during the late 1990s included pro- and anti-abortion activists, tobacco industry groups and environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club.
Because of its inherently political content—either tacit or overt—advocacy advertising cannot be judged simply in terms of whether it achieves a sponsor's objectives. Its impact needs to be analyzed in the larger context of the social responsibility of advertisers and its contribution to a balanced discussion of controversial issues.