Using advertising-style creativity to effect policy change

Despite doggedly writing about creativity in advertising, I’m acutely aware that advertising naturally supports creativity, unlike PR where professionals have to find new fonts of creativity within the kind of persuasive work they do. In a way, advertising is like a clean canvas to draw anything creatively, while PR is almost like your eyes and hands being tied while you find ways to still try something creatively.

Related read: Creativity in PR Part 1 | Part 2

In that context, here are three examples of creativity in persuading policy decisions, something that is usually the domain of PR. The route taken in these three examples are stellar demonstrations of creative thinking, but they are not geared to make people buy something – they are geared towards ensuring that a policy change happens.

1. The Tampon Book (2019)

The context around this campaign was this: in Germany, many luxury goods were granted a reduced tax rate of 7%. But, tampons, an essential item, were subject to the top VAT rate of 19%, making them more expensive than they should be.

How can creativity help policymakers see this obvious truth, and perhaps do something about it?

The Female Company, a femhealth platform, decided to use creativity to persuade the policymakers. The result, with help of the agency Scholz & Friends, was the campaign called ‘The Tampon Book’.

The logic was simple: books had a VAT rate of 7%. So, The Female Company launched a book with 45 pages of content around menstruation, taboos, and feminism + 15 tampons right inside the book!

Of course, it was a limited edition book, and not really meant as a mass-market idea. It was sold off immediately, and understandably. But more than the sales of the book, the real idea was to make news. It’s one thing to simply talk about the VAT difference, and entirely another to showcase creatively how silly the idea was. The Tampon Book was the creative device that led to massively increased chatter about the VAT discrepancy.

The launch of the book was supported by an online website that urged people to sign a petition that can be formally sent to the policymakers.

Did the campaign work? Oh yes! Towards the end of 2019, Germany slashed the tampon tax!

The creative route taken was very advertising-style, but the effort was very PR-driven.

2. The Morning After Island (2022)

The premise: a 2009 ministerial decree in Honduras banned the sale, distribution, and use of emergency contraception pills (called the ‘morning after’ pill). There were even severe penalties for using or distributing the pills!

How can creativity help in persuading policymakers to consider a change of stance and respect women’s reproductive rights and freedom?

Grupo Estratégico PAE, a women’s rights organization, along with Ogilvy Honduras, created a floating island on international waters beyond the Honduran border on the sea where women could come in, get a pill and consume it! They won’t be breaking Honduran law, in the process!

Did the campaign work? Xiomara Castro was sworn in as Honduras’ first female President in January 2022. After this campaign made a phenomenal amount of noise in the media, she invited Grupo Estratégico PAE to a televised meeting on International Woman’s Day (March 8, 2022) to discuss the morning-after pill issue directly and the kind of change needed in the law.

3. EU School Milk Scheme (2022)

The premise: the European Union has opened a public consultation towards ascertaining the kind of food served in schools. The idea is to create a favorable food environment that makes it easier to choose healthy and sustainable diets. The consultation is open between May 5 – July 28, 2022.

Enter Oatly, the plant-based milk brand!

What’s Oatly’s pitch? Given the fact that 160?million liters of subsidized cow’s milk are served in schools all over Europe within the EU school scheme, it builds ?a preference for dairy products while children’s eating habits are being established! So, Oatly is asking for people to sign the petition towards including plant-based milk in the school scheme so that they are open to non-dairy products earlier in life and build their own preferences!

In fact, the consultation document mentions this, under ‘Problem the initiative aims to tackle’— “Scope of eligible products: in the light of their health benefits, current exceptions to the general prohibition of added sugars, salt and fat may be reconsidered and the possibility of other products, such as plant-based drinks and/or whole grains, explored; more could also be done in respect of their environmental dimension (share of organic products, environmentally-friendly products, conditions for packaging and waste disposal, including food waste reduction)

So, the EU is already considering plant-based drinks, the kind that Oatly makes! But Oatly wants to make a gentle push for its case more than the current consideration.

That’s why Oatly has chosen an advertising-style story-telling to make its point.

The larger story, in terms of the environmental backdrop of dairy products vs. plant-based products, cruelty-free food production, and promoting choice and inclusivity (globally, 68% of people are lactose intolerant!) is in the campaign microsite.

But what is the campaign’s front? This provocatively interesting video!

The framing is brilliant – they actually show their own product as a contraband item sold in a school! Why? If the EU plan does not take into account plant-based drinks and goes with the dairy lobby (for example), then this is what it’d end up… seems to be the creative thought.

When someone commented on YouTube that Oatly is framing its own product like how drugs are sold, the brand comes back with a smart point – it need not be drugs alone. It could be anything that is barred from being used in a school.

Will the campaign work? They have 28,000+ signatures out of the target of 50,000 (as I last saw it). Whether the 50,000 signatures would amount to something or not, we would know once the EU decides after taking into account the suggestions they receive.

But the creativity demonstrated in this case is brilliant. It pushes the boundary in terms of the narrative and refuses to take a simple, documentary-style communication. All that is reserved for the campaign website once people are sold on the overall premise. And that this ad achieves mighty well.

That’s the first need for a creative effort not directed at people to buy your product or service but to persuade them to perform another kind of action that would lead to a policy change from an entirely different audience – the Government!



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