Empowerment Marketing: Advertising To Humans As More Than Just Selfish Machines

For decades, companies have made you feel inadequate in order to get you to buy things. In an excerpt from his new book Story Wars Jonah Sachs traces the history of the growing field of marketing products in ways that make us better people and the world a better place.

Empowerment Marketing: Advertising To Humans As More Than Just Selfish Machines
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Empowerment Marketing: A Resistance to the Dark Art

For nearly a century now, inadequacy marketing has provided the favored weapons for fighting the story wars. And though the cautionary tales of Groupon and Kenneth Cole show how the digitoral age is putting chinks in its armor, the approach is anything but dead. In fact, its practice remains the automatic starting point for most of us, whether we’re selling fish curry or social action.


But that’s only half the story. For nearly as long, a countercurrent has run through the story wars. Empowerment marketing eschews every assumption made by the inadequacy approach. Acting much in the way myths have for millennia, this approach builds stories that point out the possibility for human growth and even transcendence. Empowerment stories often delight audiences by mocking the familiar anxiety provoking assaults of the dark art. They inspire action by painting a picture of an imperfect world that can be repaired through heroic action. And most importantly, they create deep affinity by acknowledging that human beings can be something more than selfish machines seeking status, sex, comfort, and convenience.

Media mogul Arianna Huffington, who sold her homegrown, virally powered news site to AOL for $315 million, knows a few things about what works in the digitoral era. She recently described what she called the most important trend in marketing: “the recognition by businesses that there’s much to be said for appealing to consumers’ better instincts, and engaging them with something other than materialism, sex, money, and self-interest.”

“It’s not a coincidence,” she added, “that this trend is escalating at the same time social media have risen to the forefront in the worlds of both marketing and activism.”


Huffington is right–social media platforms are amplifying the power of positive stories. But it’s misleading to call it a trend. These stories have always been with us and have always been powerfully resonant.

Now, to judge the importance of empowerment marketing by the frequency of its use is to deem it irrelevant. Its stories represent but a tiny handful of the thousands of marketing myths that vie for our attention daily. But if you evaluate empowerment marketing by its ability to create unforgettable, iconic campaigns, it reveals itself as the ultimate secret weapon for winning the story wars. In fact, its relative rarity is one element of its enormous appeal. Beleaguered audiences often experience empowerment marketing stories as a celebrated breath of fresh air.

Telling the truth–most importantly, the truth that human nature goes beyond our basest desires and orients to a higher potential–provides the foundation of a storytelling strategy thatcan build your next breakthrough communication–and your entire brand. It also offers the opportunity to participate in a revolution aimed at repairing our dysfunctional and negative media landscape. Of course, putting a new, positive sheen on marketing is not an end in itself. But reorienting our myths away from the adolescent, depressed consumer mind-set and toward the empowered citizen worldview is a powerful first step in reshaping our society for the better.


However, before we use the empowerment marketing lens to understand some of marketing’s most famous successes, I offer an important warning: breakthrough empowerment stories are not the exclusive property of responsible products or organizations. To understand the connection between effective stories and responsible behavior, we’ll have to wait for our exploration of John Powers’s final commandment, Live the Truth. For now, I ask you to put aside your judgments about any product, organization, or political cause being examined. Yes, there is hypocrisy in some of these campaigns. But at this point, I simply want to illustrate the great power held by these iconic stories and the resonance they inspire.

Tactic #1: Expose the Lies of Inadequacy

The first tactic of empowerment marketing is perhaps the most powerful: tell a more resonant truth in the face of commonly accepted lies.

Think Small


In the late 1950s, nothing expressed the dark art strategy more aggressively than automobile advertising. American automakers assailed the public with campaigns insisting that status, taste, and social acceptance were magically achieved and expressed entirely through the car you drove. This myth found its most fitting icon in the American car.

At the top of the heap sat the Cadillac, whose ads were aimed not only at those who could afford its exorbitant $5,000 price tag but also at those aspiring to such heights. These ads didn’t just sell cars, they sold a whole set of values–values about happiness, identity, and the good life. The subtle effect of these campaigns was to coerce Americans to work longer hours and sacrifice more to step up the ladder from a Chevrolet to a Buick to an Oldsmobile and oneday, God willing, to the ultimate automobile, the Cadillac.

Here’s what a typical Cadillac ad from 1959 promised under the headline “A Single Glance Tells the Story”:


“The 1959 Cadillac speaks so eloquently–in so many ways–of the man who sits at its wheel. Simply because it is a Cadillac…it indicates his high level of personal achievement. Because it is so beautiful and majestic, it speaks of his fine taste…why not visit your dealer tomorrow and arrange to have a new Cadillac tell its wonderful story about you?”

Climbing the automobile ladder was hard work, and staying on top was even harder. Each year, employing the practice of perceived obsolescence, Chevrolet would roll out an entirely redesigned, and usually larger, model. A car that had been the height of fashion yesterday would look small, embarrassing, and worn-out tomorrow, communicating the exact opposite story its driver so deeply desired to have told. As you would imagine, all of this provoked a good deal of anxiety from the bottom to the top of American society.

Then in 1959, seemingly out of nowhere, simple full-page newspaper ads began to appear with an unadorned image of the Volkswagen Beetle and the headline “Think Small.” The ad didn’t say much more, except that the car was modest and efficient–it even called the Beetle a “flivver,” contemporary slang for a piece of junk. People found the ads shockingly honest and hilarious, allowing them to publicly express an unnamed anxiety that marketers had been instilling in them for years. Will I make it to the top of the ladder? Who cares?


Spurred on by the outrageous success of these ads, VW’s agency, DDB, intensified its assault on the Detroit inadequacy approach, in effect celebrating the joys of what others might call inadequacy.

Live Below Your Means” advised one particularly revolutionary advertisement. The campaign celebrated the fact that the clunky design of the Beetle had not changed for almost two decades (when Hitler had first commissioned its creation–a small detail that was, of course, omitted).

The effectiveness of these ads has been endlessly chronicled, and fifty years later it is still widely considered the stand-alone best marketing campaign of the twentieth century, number one on the Ad Age list. It turned the strange, sluggishly selling car into the totem of the counterculture revolution. It helped a whole generation fill the myth gap left by disaffection with the suburban dream as they discovered new explanation and meaning in freedom and the open road–and a new driving ritual to enact their new story. Think Small is even credited with starting the creative revolution that turned advertising on its head in the 1960s. But the campaign does not owe its success to offbeat creativity or its celebrated use of white space on the page. The power of the new story VW was telling began at its core, with its values. While Cadillac was celebrating an endless quest for status and wealth, VW celebrated joyful modesty of material desire and truth in the face of insincerity.


Real Beauty

Nearly a lifetime after Think Small’s breakthrough success, Unilever’s Dove brand rediscovered the power of a direct assault on inadequacy. Dove would base a new campaign launched in 2004 on the insights of a study showing that only 12 percent of women are satisfied with their appearance and a mere 2 percent consider themselves beautiful. According to the study, a shocking two-thirds of all women age fifteen to sixty-four said they withdraw from “life-engaging activities due to feeling badly about their looks”; life-engaging activities include things like voicing an opinion, attending school, and even going to the doctor. Who’s to blame? A vast majority of respondents blamed the media, at least in part, for creating and promoting messages that celebrate unattainable beauty ideals. Of course, these ideals are no accident–they are the carefully nurtured engines of anxiety that drive inadequacy marketing. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year reinforcing them.

Dove’s Real Beauty campaign dragged this anxiety into the light of day and in the process created one of advertising’s early online viral sensations. A seventy-five-second video, titled Evolution, shows in silent detail how a normal, even haggard-looking, model is Photoshopped into the perfect cover girl. The spot reveals that her beauty doesn’t come from her cleanser, her moisturizer, or any one of a bagful of products women are constantly being encouraged to apply. We learn that this kind of beauty is just digital magic. A dark art secret had been revealed in little more than a minute, and millions of women around the world rejoiced, passing it from friend to friend. The video got picked up and shown as content, not advertisement, all over daytime TV. Oprah, who herself had become the most powerful woman in media through a relentless focus on empowering stories and higher ideals, featured the Real Beauty campaign every day for a week. The video would earn its creators tens of millions of dollars of free media.


Just like Think Small, the surface of the larger Real Beauty campaign is certainly worth attention: real-looking women starring in beauty ads, feeling beautiful in their less-than-perfect bodies. But it is the moral of its story–that the beauty ideal is a lie and that real beauty comes from truth–and its core value–sufficiency of all woman as opposed to inadequacy–that created such enormous audience affinity and resonance. Although the campaign makes this moral implicitly clear, Dove wanted to make sure it couldn’t be missed. Giving their models a mouthpiece through the campaign,the women spoke out, clearly stating the values and the point of the Dove story: “I love the thought of being a part of an ad that would potentially touch many young girls to tell them that it is all right to be unique and everyone is beautiful in their own skin,” said model Shanel Lu.

And even more to the point is Sigrid Sutter, quoting Keats: “Truth is beauty.”

Tactic #2: Speak to the Hero, Not the Child

The second tactic of empowerment marketing emphasizes power of the audience, casting the viewer as the hero with brand or organization as a helper, speeding her on her way.



At the center of Nike’s 2008 “Courage” campaign is a website gallery of athletes who through sheer will and perseverance overcame tremendous odds. And at the center of this gallery sits a sixty-second video that denies every tenet of inadequacy marketing. It begins with a title card reading: “Everything you need is already inside.” Then, to the beat of the Killers’ song “All the Things That I Have Done” and the chant “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier,” the viewer experiences a hyperspeed montage of the perfection of nature, the innocence of children, the diversity of world culture, and overlaying it all, the painfully won transcendence of athletic achievement. Finally, of course, we get the tagline: Just Do It. With these three simple, and now universally recognized, words, the viewer is asked not to simply admire all of this perfection but to pursue similar achievement in whatever way he or she defines it. The it in “Just Do It” is intentionally nonprescribed and thus, for many, has become deeply personal.

Courage is but one of the hundreds of Just Do It messages that has catapulted Nike to iconic status in its industry over the last twenty years, but I’ve chosen to highlight this execution because it so clearly declares the moral of the incredibly resonant Nike myth. Reminiscent of one of Aesop’s fables, Courage’s moral is spelled out for the audience in unmistakable terms: “Everything you need is already inside.” Stirring up feelings of inadequacy? This is the exact opposite approach.


It’s important to not just understand but to feel the distinction between empowerment marketing and inadequacy marketing–because that’s how your audiences experience them. So try this: watch the Courage video and then watch the 2010 Skechers Super Bowl ad featuring Kim Kardashian–a classic lust-focused inadequacy spot. It’s a muddled lascivious mess of a message in which the reality star gives up her trainer/lover for a shoe that does all the work for her. Audiences rated it a painful flop. Notice how the two approaches instinctively pull you on a gut level in opposite directions–one toward a sense of empowerment, the other away.

Still, the Courage message goes further than uplift. Traditional marketing has deeply ingrained in us the assumption that audiences prize ease and convenience and avoid making sacrifices at any cost–case in point, a shoe that replaces the need to work out. Even the latest strategy briefs from marketers working on climate change warn against acknowledging the need for tough choices and trade-offs. Rather, they exhort cause marketers to focus only on self-interest and ease of action.

This is a destructive and flawed assumption. People are programmed to believe in heroism, and, as Christopher Vogler notes in his classic text on mythic structure in movies: “Sacrifice is the Hero’s willingness to give up something of value, perhaps even her own life, on behalf of an ideal or group.” The post-modern inadequacy approach insists that people have lost any interest in difficult but ultimately heroic action. The success of Just Do It, with its relentless focus on pain and failure ultimately giving way to success, powerfully indicates otherwise.


It’s interesting to imagine how counterintuitive Just Do Itwould have seemed to our marketing forefathers. If everything you need is already in you, what hole is there for the brand to fill? I can just imagine a 1950s creative director laughing at a junior copywriter, the Courage brief in his hand and soon to be in the trash bin.

Apple’s 1984

Like Just Do It, “1984” mocks the idea that a corporation can take care of us and give us what we need. The droning voice of conformity on the giant screen is not just a stand-in for IBM. Most audiences didn’t care enough to rebel against the monolithic computer maker because at the time, computers just weren’t that personal. The story was so resonant because the villain representsadvertising’s typical consumerist approach, an approach that audiences indeed feel a deep need to resist. After all, the book 1984 waswritten as Orwell’s response to the increasing levels of social engineering he saw all around him in the supposedly free world. Through the action of the ad, Apple doesn’t try to step in as a heroic replacement for IBM, a better Big Brother. Rather it casts itself as a tool for the creativity of those who resist.


On its surface we find a remarkably produced and familiar tale of dystopia and rebellion. And it was well timed, coming at a moment of myth gap in which the techtopia future promised in the 1950s appeared to be nothing more than an illusion. More deeply, we find a moral deeply contradictory to the dark art: creative non-conformists will rule the world. And at its core, we find the values of self-realization and creativity.

As Steve Jobs would tell his biographer before his death, “The people who buy [Apple products] do think different. They are the creative spirits in this world, and they’re out to change the world. We make tools for those kinds of people.”

Tactic #3: Forget the Consumer, Call on the Citizen

The final tactic of empowerment marketing comes down to this: inspired citizens make better brand evangelists than helpless consumers.

Yes We Can

I thought I detected tear stains on the hundreds of messages that filled my inbox, e-mailed from my nearly forgotten friends, colleagues, and even my grandfather. For a moment I wondered if the same spammer had hijacked every e-mail account on Earth. But each message contained a personal, heartfelt confession–some variation on the single theme “I had to share this with you.”

I click the link, and within a moment I’m riveted to YouTube:

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation. Yes we can., frontman for the Black Eyed Peas, sings the mythmaking words of a sensational candidate for president who had just been defeated in the New Hampshire primary.

Yes we can, to justice and equality. Yes we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can. Sí, se puede.

Scarlett Johansson, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, and John Legend are all singing, chanting, signing along with Obama’s concession speech–a speech that promised hope, not the kind that would be delivered to us as consumers, but that we could work together to earn for ourselves as citizens.

We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

Yes We Can is the perfect expression of the digitoral era: a mash-up, produced without the knowledge of the candidate who once owned its words. It’s a reinterpretation and retelling of a story that had the power to move a nation but whose expression on a single night of defeat might have been forgotten in the twenty-four-hour news cycle–if not for tens of millions of views online. It’s too long and unconventional to be a TV spot, too bold to be an official campaign video–and too compelling to resist forwarding it along. had put his name on the first digitoral political masterpiece.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant. We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope…We will begin the next great chapter in America’s story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea–Yes. We. Can.

The ad earned an Emmy and extended his legend as a man who chose to capitalize on–rather than run from–the massive changes the Internet had brought to the music industry. Of course, the digitoral-savvy of is only half the story. The real magic came from the story Yes We Can had created, and that story began with Barack Obama, the candidate who was telling the truth. I’m not talking about the surface truth pertaining to policy details. Barack Obama was telling the truth about human nature. He wason his way to winning an election by winning the story wars.

The stage for the truth Obama would tell was set in an America exhausted by politics based on the dark art. The events of 9/11 had given rise to the most powerful narrative of the decade, and it was a narrative that meshed perfectly with the story told by the man who came before him. Even before the tragedy, George W. Bush had been warning: “Today we live in a world of terror, mad men and missiles.” It was an unsettling tone we would come to expect as a matter of course and for a while it offered enough explanation and meaning to keep a nation moving forward. But it could not hold for long.

With an economic collapse looming and unstoppable and two wars raging, fear was everywhere. Obama responded with: Yes we can.

Values at the core of legendary campaigns

Contained within those three words was a campaign that turned inadequacy marketing on its head. Obama’s words glorified optimism over fear, collective sacrifice over individual greed, and engaged citizenship over prepackaged, convenient solutions. My social network wouldn’t have been weeping if Obama had been addressing us as a mass of passive children needing to be coddled and directed. He touched a nerve with an empowering message highlighting our boundless ability to mature and transcend.

Obama’s story spread wildly through the digitoral landscape. People believed that yes, they could, and became joyful evangelists. The Obama campaign raised over $500 million online alone. And, against all odds, Barack Obama became the president of the United States.

What is most commonly admired and studied about the Obama campaign is not its brand but its success in leveraging emerging online tools. But the two cannot be separated. Sure, the campaign recruited Facebook wonder boy Chris Hughes to do its online organizing and seemed to grasp the magic of widgets and ringtones faster than anyone else. But tools alone don’t deliver resonance. Authenticity does.

“It’s even easier to reveal inauthenticity in the online world,” observed Jeff Gulati, a professor tracking the use of social media in campaigns and a student of the Obama run for president. “If it doesn’t resonate in the offline world, it won’t resonate in the online world.”

While the tools accelerated the massive spread of the message, it was the message itself that drove Obama’s online success. And that message was simple: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person,” he told his supporters on Super Tuesday, “or if we wait for some other time … We are the hope of the future.”

It’s a powerful message of hard work, personal maturity, and community engagement. And it’s a direct assault on inadequacy marketing.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell–and Live–the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Copyright 2012 Jonah Sachs. All rights reserved.


About the author

Jonah Sachs is a digital marketing pioneer who created some of the internet’s first viral social change campaigns. He writes about storytelling, creativity and the work of groundbreaking innovators


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