Research In Progress: The presence and effects of self-transcendent content in CSA messaging

June 1, 2021

Alan Abitbol and Matthew VanDyke

By Alan Abitbol, University of Dayton and Matthew VanDyke, University of Alabama

In 2018, Nike launched its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign featuring polarizing former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the main spokesperson. The main message of the campaign was “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.” Reaction toward the campaign was divisive, with those against the campaign protesting Nike; going as far as burning their Nike apparel.

That same year, in direct response to President Trump’s signed order to temporarily close America’s borders to refugees, Airbnb launched its “We Accept” campaign featuring a montage of people of different nationalities sowing a message of togetherness and acceptance. The campaign was praised and the company saw an exponential increase in hosts and donations from its partners.

In 2019, Gillette launched its “We Believe” campaign as a response against toxic masculinity. Despite a pledge by Gillette’s parent company Proctor & Gamble to donate $1 million annually to U.S. nonprofits, the campaign received immediate backlash with many citing the hypocrisy of a brand that built itself on objectifying women.

There are hundreds more campaigns like these where a company takes sides on a social or political cause. As these examples show, the reactions by stakeholders seem to be visceral and swift (both in favor and against).
Previous research has examined why companies publicly participate in corporate social activism (CSA) and many public polls have shown that stakeholders expect companies to take a stand on sociopolitical issues. So, why do we, as consumers, often have such a deep emotional response to campaigns like this?

One explanation is that many of these CSA campaigns ask consumers to consider causes or issues that are self-transcendent – bigger than we are and bigger than the company or its products or services. Research on self-transcendent media experiences have supported the notion that these campaigns may evoke a reaction in us that goes beyond buying a product or supporting a cause, but could involve more complex responses that may lead to our desire to fulfill intrinsic or even altruistic needs.

Although transcendent media experiences have been examined within the context of entertainment and politics, no research to date has examined the prevalence or impact of these experiences within CSA campaigns. Our project seeks to understand the prevalence of transcendent media strategies in CSA campaigns and to give organizations more insight into what elements of a CSA campaign elicits stakeholders’ emotions to not only become more reflective but also moved enough to respond in an organizational-beneficial (or -detrimental) way.

We plan to conduct this project in two phases. In the first phase, we will analyze existing CSA campaigns of the past five years to examine the presence and prevalence of self-transcendent emotional elicitors. We will then conduct an experiment that will test how the self-transcendent emotional elicitors we found in the first phase impact stakeholder perceptions of a company’s reputation and quality of relationships.

With more information about what elements in a CSA campaign may evoke an emotional response, companies can become more strategic in how they present their advocacy for a particular cause. Adapting and adopting characteristics of transcendent media messages could help bolster a company’s relationship with its stakeholders and its reputation.

So, before you decide to burn your athletic apparel, boycott your favorite chicken sandwich, or book your next vacation to support a company, check back here next year to learn more about how your favorite company’s campaigns make you emotional enough to care.

For further information on this study, please email Alan Abitbol at or Matthew VanDyke at This project is supported by the 2021 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center. Results from the study will be available in 2022.