The Rising Tide of Social Value in the Media Industry

In the midst of the seemingly infinite advancement of media captivating our attention, the tide of “positive influence” is rising. Here is an overview of the latest trends of social value in the media industry.



“Mission to Become Patagonia of the Media Industry!”
The Rise of SpringHill Entertainment

I recently came across an article that would raise quite a few eyebrows: SpringHill Entertainment, a media company based in the U.S. successfully raised USD 100 million in investment. SpringHill is a media content production company established by LeBron James, considered the world’s best basketball player since Michael Jordan. Part of the reason why I was so surprised was because the article I chanced upon was published by a publication that specializes in impact investing* and ESG investing*. The reported new investment is SpringHill’s public declaration to define itself as a media company for the socially marginalized.


*Impact investment: Investments into companies, organizations, and funds to generate social and environmental impact along with a financial return *ESG investment: Investments into profitable companies that are environmentally friendly, socially responsible, and operated with good corporate governance.



In fact, this is not the first attempt of its kind in the U.S. Jeff Skoll, co-founder of the world’s largest e-commerce company, eBay, and the founder of the Skoll Foundation, is one of the leading figures who are promoting social value leveraging on the power of media. In particular, the Skoll Foundation, which is considered one of the most influential supporters of social enterprises in the world, has been making great investments in introducing the social entrepreneurs and their causes that the foundation supports in documentaries and radio shows on major broadcasting networks in the U.S.




A great case in point is Kiva, currently world’s most well-known P2P micro-lending web platform. It was featured on Frontline, one of the most acclaimed documentary series of the American television network, PBS, through the support of the Skoll Foundation about a year after the business started its operation. After the show aired, tens of thousands of people who were persuaded to help the business provide micro-lending tried to access Kiva’s website, resulting in the website shut down for three days. With the incident attracting wide publicity on their activities, the business was introduced on the Oprah Winfrey Show and introduced in former president Bill Clinton’s book, which was followed by its winning the Skoll Award in 2008, fast establishing itself as a star social enterprise in the U.S.



Furthering the cause of social impact, Jess Skoll founded a film production company, “Participant Productions,” in 2004. The company aims to produce entertainment content that delivers messages on society, producing and distributing media content that allows the public to reflect on particular issues and social problems. The company was recently rebranded as “Participant Media” to focus more on film production. Films produced by Participant Media, despite their commercial nature, focus on social themes such as anti-discrimination and human rights. The company took initiative to present issues, through media, that need to be addressed by the collective will and wisdom of the humanity in order to inspire action in an industry dominated by Hollywood blockbusters.



Shortcut to the Cannes Lions Festival? Social Value in Advertising

In fact, the shifting focus toward social value in the advertising and media industry is nothing new. For years now, the Cannes Lions Festival has been dominated by winners who created content focusing on social value. In 2019, the festival introduced a new category of Lions Award for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)*. Let’s take a look at some of the winners of last year’s award.

*SDG: Goals pursued by members of the United Nations (UN) for sustainable development, incorporating the environment, economy, and social inclusion, as part of the agenda adopted in 2015 by the UN.



Automaker Volvo focused on the fact that most car manufacturers use male test dummies for their safety tests. Cars tested and manufactured based on limited data can result in greater injuries for people of a smaller physique such as women and children as well as those who are physically more vulnerable including pregnant women and the elderly. To mitigate such risk, Volvo collects data based on the conditions of more than 70,000 passengers to carry out its safety tests. The company have disclosed all of the data used for its safety tests since 1970, encouraging other automakers to pursue the same change.



IKEA’s “ThisAbles” is a design project that aims to ensure that IKEA’s furniture is accessible to people with disabilities by addressing the difficulty of use of most furniture that is manufactured based on the physique or physical activities of people without disabilities—hence the title of the project, “ThisAbles,” playing on the word “disable” with an entirely different meaning.


In addition to the examples above, numerous winners tell a story that incorporates social value, including climate change, biodiversity, and anti-discrimination. Some would raise the concern that social value is now considered a form of a “shortcut” to being recognized by the judges in the Awards, but the reality is that content centered around social value actually “works” in the advertising industry. An advertising slot in the Super Bowl (the annual championship game of the National Football League in the U.S.) is known to cost a whopping KRW 200 million per second. In the world’s most expensive advertising space, numerous companies send out messages not only about the convenience and equality of consumers, but also about inclusiveness and diversity. Microsoft, for instance, launched a commercial with a theme on “disability” in 2019, followed by a commercial on “empowering women,” which resonated with the consumers. Super Bowl fans are now used to messages about sustainable future created by automakers like Audi centered around their electric vehicles.



YouTube, a New Media Platform, Meets Social Value

YouTubers outside Korea are already embracing social value in their respective area. Allbirds, often dubbed Apple of the shoes brands by making all of its products with sustainable, eco-friendly materials, are praised for their shoes that are often described as “the most comfortable shoes in the world” by countless fashion YouTubers. Mukbang YouTubers are doing blind tastings with alternative meat brands such as Beyond Meat to describe the flavors of the meat on their sensitive taste buds and share their opinions with the viewers.



Social enterprise startup “Zero Mass Water” immediately captured the attention of impact investors with its product that combines two solar panels that could produce two liters of water even in a desert, which is a very intriguing source of content that a science YouTuber cannot simply pass. YouTubers across the world who are creating content on sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyles along with various other content related to social value are creating their vlogs on the subject.


Most of the time, the starting point for the media to embrace social value is social issues that consumers or subscribers of a particular media platform are faced with or may be interested in. Here is an interesting case in point of a Korean YouTuber: YouTuber ChaCha of ChaChaPiano provides content that helps beginners learn how to play the piano. Some of the viewers say in the comments, “I couldn’t afford piano lessons, but her videos helped me learn how to play the instrument,” or “I gave up on a career as a pianist even after majoring in music, and her videos are a source of comfort for me.” With the increasing amount of such feedback, ChaCha created content on her experience of visiting students who cannot afford piano lessons and teaching them how to play the instrument or teaching students with other people who majored in music, which drew great feedback from her subscribers.



ChaCha didn’t stop at simply creating content; she decided to start her own social enterprise. Taking advantage of her specialty, she set up a business that hires people who studied music and are looking for a stable job as music instructors and provides remote one-on-one lessons for affordable prices (that are nearly free for children who are in need). Since the beginning of this year, the business has recruited seven teachers and had 250 students sign up for the service. It may still be a small business, but isn’t it interesting how ChaCha accurately identified issues faced by potential customers, reflected the relevant social value into the media content, and expanded it into a business model?
Second point to highlight about social value and the media is that when the essence of the content by a creator is well-aligned with social value, the synergy can create content welcomed by customers. MrBeast is a mega YouTuber operating a channel with a whopping 41.6 million subscribers. The key concept of his channel is based on is “ingenious pranks with scale.” For instance, the YouTuber secretly fills up his friend’s house with 10 million Lego blocks to capture the friend’s reaction on the video, or carries out an experiment to see if he could drag a car with 20,000 magnets.



The YouTube channel embraces social value with its core concept of “ingenious pranks.” For instance, the YouTuber purchases a house for a homeless person or buys up all the products of a supermarket, donates them to a homeless center, and runs away. The channel also partnered with a used car dealer to sell the cars for 10 dollars to people in need after listening to their stories (a great example that can lead to corporate sponsorship and advertising). Since October last year, the channel also has been doing a challenge to plant 20 million trees through a fundraiser project called Team Trees. The YouTuber announced that, for every dollar donated, a tree will be planted, and the project successfully raised USD 22 million.


In Korea, an increasing number of creators are sharing social value from their own perspectives. In September this year, before the main event for SOVAC 2020 started, influencers and creators sympathetic toward the cause of promoting social value shared videos of themselves trying out various products of social enterprises to share their positive influence as “Happy Influencers.” I was invited to help the Happy Influencers understand the value of social enterprises. I’d like to share the case of “Setakseol.” He is a YouTuber who shares his expertise and tips on laundry based on 10 years of experience in operating a laundry service, and created content titled, “Why should we wear sneakers made of renewable leather?” Out of all the materials that he could have used to share his laundry tips, why did he choose this material?


Long-time subscribers of his channel have the need to “understand how to properly wash the clothes they have so that they can wear them longer.” The essence of upcycling is about treating materials that are about to be discarded to use them longer. By combining an everyday life activity such as laundry with upcycling, the content reminds viewers that maintaining everyday items properly and not throwing away things easily is the start of protecting the environment. In fact, a lot of the channel’s subscribers promised in their comments that they would “act on protecting the environment” in their own way. This is a good example of media content synergizing with activities for social value.


Are you familiar with the term, “cause marketing”? It’s a marketing strategy for companies to leverage on social issues such as the environment, famine, poverty, and public health. A “cause” can mean “a legitimate purpose or reason for pursuing a task,” but it also refers to “a more general reason why something occurred.” In other words, “cause marketing” is different from CSR activities, meaning that the marketing strategy should be centered around the purpose of achieving the core value of a brand or product. Cause marketing is not directly related to media content on social value. It is, nonetheless, interesting that, companies, brands, and content creators are increasingly shifting their focus on the core reason of their existence and sharing it in the media. Social problems cannot be addressed by a handful of people or in a short term. Addressing the problems requires the entire society to be at the same wavelength about the need for change and innovation. Struggling with a problem leads to keen interest in the broader issue and individual actions lead to collective awareness. The tide of positive influence is rising as we are faced with issues that cannot be brushed off as “someone else’s problems.” It is time for companies as well as the entire industry to reflect upon the important values in life and the future for everyone. I’m looking forward to finding out what kind of changes can be brought by the wave of social value through the media industry.