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The People For Good campaign. (Handout/Handout)
The People For Good campaign. (Handout/Handout)

ADHOCRACY

Building a better world, one coffee at a time Add to ...

The world of advertising is like your kid: it possesses both extraordinary possibilities and frustrating limitations.

Both of those qualities are playing out in a pair of ad campaigns unfolding across Canada this month, saying they want to make the world a better place. One is for a hoary brand in mid-refurbishment, the other for a non-profit attempt to spark a social movement that its founders hope will encourage people to commit random acts of kindness.

But for advertising to help make the world a better place, it might first need to overcome a popular cynicism that it helped create in the first place.

Back in the spring of 2008, Kraft's Maxwell House coffee brand launched a campaign, known as Brew Some Good, that sought to spread cheer among Canadians with good deeds and charitable giving. Its TV ads were predicated on the idea that the money normally used for expensive commercial production could be better spent on a cause, and they encouraged viewers to nominate their favourite charity to receive support. (A few months later, Pepsi took a similar approach with its Pepsi Refresh Project in the U.S.)

This year, Maxwell House is taking another swing with Brew Some Good , albeit in a slightly different form by trying to spur a more generic form of optimism among Canadians. Its new TV spots begin as conventional commercials - someone pours a mug of steaming coffee - which instead evolve into "optimism breaks," to bring viewers uplifting stories such as one about a homeless man who found $3,000 in a backpack and returned it to its rightful owner, or a four-year-old girl who gives herself adorable daily affirmations in the mirror. ("I like my cousins!" "I like my hair!" "I like my pyjamas!")

At the website BrewSomeGood.ca, people can upload their own optimism breaks, and weigh in on whether their cup is half-full or half-empty. (As of Thursday afternoon, votes were about three-to-one in favour of half-full.) And the brand is now taking the message to the street, opening what it calls an Optimism Café for the month of July in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto, where it is serving free coffee (as well as Kraft products such as Peek Frean cookies and Clorets gum) and hosting events designed to cheer up area residents, such as a discussion this Saturday with Neil Pasricha, the sunny-minded author of The Book of Awesome.

On Thursday morning, a yoga instructor appeared at the café to talk about its benefits and to demonstrate for a handful of curious patrons.

It's a strategy that carries some risk. Just about all advertising, of course, is selling optimism (hello Lululemon, Coke, Apple, Telus, Toyota, McDonald's, etc.). Few ads, though, articulate that right on their surface. "We had a lot of conversations about the word 'optimism,' how people would relate to it - is it a consumer-friendly word?" acknowledges Rena Nickerson, the Maxwell House senior brand manager. "And I think it's really refreshing for people to hear us say what we mean."

For some perspective on the twinned notions of optimism and doing good, I reached out to Grant Gordon, president and creative director at Key Gordon Communications in Toronto. (While it may be questionable to ask an ad agency executive to weigh in on the work of another firm, Mr. Gordon founded his company in order to work with brands that make the world a better place: Key Gordon's tagline is "Branding the good guys.") "I don't want to be a wet blanket," he insisted. Still, "the thing that rankles me is that their product is not sustainable. If they really want to spread optimism, the first thing I'd do is improve the product. Why not create something that doesn't damage the environment?

"Some of the questions they may want to ask themselves, if they really want to reflect on optimism: Is their coffee pesticide-free? Is it shade-grown? Is it fair-trade? Is it bird-friendly? It's none of these things. The product and the image they want to portray - they're completely disconnected, it seems to me."

Consumers - no, let's make that "people" - are often cynical about these sorts of efforts because of so many half-true claims in marketing, especially over the last few years as companies have tried to reposition themselves to be environmentally friendly without doing the hard work of actually embracing sustainable practices.

But defeating that kind of baked-in cynicism is going to be necessary if another campaign aimed at spreading good has a shot at succeeding. Last week, newspaper ads and transit posters began popping up around Toronto and Montreal urging people to be kinder and gentler toward their fellow citizens. "Hug a stranger. We're all relatives if we go back far enough," reads one execution. Among the dozens of other suggestions are exhortations for drivers to be more courteous, for people to help strangers with their groceries, and for shoppers to put away their cellphones and actually talk to a store cashier.

There's a Facebook page for the campaign, as well as an iPhone app that offers up suggestions for good deeds when someone is at home, at work, out and about, or in transit.

The campaign, about six months in the making, is the brainchild of an organization called People For Good. The people behind People For Good say they wanted to stay out of the spotlight - they were concerned about cynical people thinking they were doing this for personal glory - but they say growing curiosity prodded them to come forward this week. And so it can be reported: The creative was spearheaded by Zak Mroueh and his Toronto ad shop Zulu Alpha Kilo, while the heavy presence of the ads was orchestrated by Mark Sherman, the executive chairman of the Montreal-based media agency Media Experts.

After all, ad people spend their lives trying to change the behaviour of others. Why not try doing that for purely altruistic reasons, Mr. Sherman and Mr. Mroueh wondered.

"Especially in big cities - everyone puts on their Walkmans or iPods, they don't really pay attention to each other any more," says Mr. Mroueh.

It may be, of course, that the onslaught of commercial messages - on radio, on billboards, in newspapers and from canvassers on the street - is one reason we shut out other people.

But that's not going to stop the People For Good partners from trying to change the world. "Something like this can make people think differently, truly think more positively," Mr. Mroueh says.

You can hear the optimism in his voice.

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