As a child, I had a fascination with the TV and everything that came on it. I did my share of running around outside but my favourite time was staring into the contraption that glowed with colour and music. Specifically, the ads.

A memory that my mum holds dear to this day is how my tiny feet would come running towards the TV so I can sing my favourite line from a Tunisian Ice Cream ad for a brand called Telga. Why am I telling you this? I adore this industry to my core, and a recent conversation with Ant Melder (Co-founder of Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder & Brown Riot) on the Culture in The Craft podcast reminded me of the passionate 16-year old that was enamoured with the idea that advertising has and still can, change the world. 

At college, we studied life-changing advertisement campaigns in my media studies class (my lecturer had a major crush on advertising too) but what we studied were all the ways ads pushed society into the wrong direction. 

The story that sticks with me is the one-off PR event known as “Torches of Freedom” that was put together by Freud’s nephew (a part of the story I never fact-checked until now and it’s actually turned out to be true!). 

The story goes, Edward Bernays – who is now referred to as the father of PR – is given the task of removing the societal belief at the time that smoking is only for men and was in fact “corrupt” and “inappropriate” for women to participate in. So he *naturally* strategises to exploit the early twentieth-century first-wave feminism in the US and make smoking become what empowered women do. 

How did he do this? Bernays decided to pay models to smoke their “torches of freedom” as they walked in the Easter Sunday Parade in New York. He also hired his own photographer to make sure he had the best photos and they could be distributed everywhere. When the campaign was released, it went viral before you could even go viral and voilà! A societal shift is made and embedded in the core foundations of our everyday life. 

The Original Influencer | History Today

Advertising, TV and film reinforced Bernays’ work repeatedly over the years.

Jump to 1968 and to one of the most well-executed tobacco print campaign ever: “You’ve come along way, baby.” Virginia Slims. 

What excited me about this campaign (after the initial anger) was that it showed that advertising had incredible power over what we do day-to-day. And if it could get millions of people to still smoke cigarettes in 2020 even when we know they kill us, and the packages are plain and boring and frankly, smoking just isn’t cool anymore. It could do the exact opposite too, and burn a permanent mark on society in a good way.

There have been massive positive strides in how women are represented across all media (but we still have a very long way to go), and a very specific representation that has seen its own mini accomplishments over recent years is the queer Muslim and Arab community. One of the best examples of this is the TV show The Bold Type, whose writers completely shunned the stereotypical “Muslim woman as victim” narrative and replaced it with a strong, Middle Eastern queer woman whose plot does not revolve around her ethnicity but is instead empowered by it. Not only is she a fully rounded character within her own right but she also does not shy away from taking up space in the narrative of the show. She isn’t the lead sadly, but since the show has come out, there have been many nods of acknowledgement for her authenticity. 

The show as a whole has demonstrated how we can write female friendships and romantic relationships the right way. We have that exact same power within our agency walls to change how the LGBTQA+ community and women are represented and related to. Let’s not rely on lazy old stereotypes like two queer women only ever being seen as friends, Vauxhall threw that notion out of the water in a beautiful way last year. 

We have the power to step outside the box and fight for a different face for our lead roles. To write new narratives that showcase different parts of our world. We have the power to inspire the younger generations to be kinder and smarter. I think we spend a lot of our time worrying about deadlines and budgets and forget how much power we hold in our hands in shaping society with every ad we make. We have the most important tool of all in advertising: to normalise. 

Just like how we normalised tobacco and sexism, we can normalise the marginalised groups in our society. Think of it as making amends for all the wrong avenues we’ve taken in the past. We hold the power to normalise and make right what is wrong. We hold that power with every client we speak to, every script we write, every strategy we make and with every ad we produce.

For more about the power of advertising, you can listen to a discussion between myself and Ant Melder on this podcast episode from Culture in the Craft where we discuss everything from how advertising has changed in recent years to its impact on society.