Corporate America rarely likes to take sides — but in Trump’s America, where millions of consumers are quite comfortable making their opinions known, the makers of products like deodorant, beer, cereal, and luxury automobiles are being pushed to get political.
This week, Dove unveiled a United Kingdom ad mocking “alternative facts,” which administration official Kellyanne Conway coined in a now-famous interview. Dove — which has for years campaigned through a strategy of female empowerment — lists its own alternative facts in the print ad, like how its antiperspirant was first used by Cleopatra and will increase your IQ by 40 points.
Even if it’s within the frame of their ads over the last few years, the Dove campaign is a definite, deliberate departure from the more gentle, affirming tone of yore. Same for the fact that the ad was for a British audience — now, ads largely are meant for the internet.
Other marketers have been pushed to make hedged political statements from movements like #GrabYourWallet, a boycott of companies that carry Trump products. Nordstrom this week said it was dropping the Ivanka Trump collection, though the company cited declining sales as the reason.
In December, cereal company Kellogg found itself embroiled in politics when it decided to yank its ads from Breitbart News, only to spark a #DumpKelloggs boycott campaign from the right-wing news site.
These aren’t tiny fringe brands seeking attention through political action. These are major corporate behemoths and huge venture-funded startups like Uber, and they’re being forced by their consumers to make calls on politics like never before.
Marketers tend to avoid politics because stepping into the fray can needlessly anger a large portion of a brand’s consumers. But companies, desperate to be a part of “the conversation” across social media, are also realizing there’s only one conversation happening in America right now.
The current fraught political environment is coming to a head right before the Super Bowl, where dozens of brands are plunking down about $5 million for 30 seconds of the most lucrative advertising time in television.
“Everyone is going to watch every Super Bowl ad this year and think about what message they are sending. We are hypersensitive,” said Jim Stengel, former global marketing chief at consumer products giant Procter & Gamble.
A few pre-released Super Bowl ads are already getting attention for appearing to make prescient political statements, even though they are typically conceived of months in advance. A 60-second spot from Budweiser, for instance, tells the brand’s origin story of a scrappy immigrant working hard to achieve his beer-making entrepreneurial dreams.
Audi’s Super Bowl ad, which has already generated about 5 million views on YouTube, promotes equal pay for women. Some viewers saw it as political, the Wall Street Journal reported. “Audi of America is committed to supporting pay equality, inclusivity, and the growth and development of all employees,” the company said in a statement to the Journal.
“Brands tend to be pressured to take this moral high ground, which means either stay out of things that might be potentially controversial at the risk of alienating somebody, or they will go to safely polarizing messages like ‘inclusion,’” said Ian Schafer, CEO and founder of creative ad agency Deep Focus.
The question going forward will be how brands navigate the Trump administration. Do they choose to engage — and on what issues?
“We’re seeing corporate democracy in a sense. People are picking a lane,” said branding consultant Dean Crutchfield. In other words, it’s brand activism with business repercussions. “Market share is at stake here,” Crutchfield said.
Meanwhile, some ad executives think Trump’s victory will bring in a wave of plainspoken ads meant to target the vast swath of Americans that clearly felt that the establishment — politicians, media, and the cultural conversation around brands — were out of touch.
“You’re seeing a really interesting narrative that middle America is having a moment,” said Eric Weisberg, global chief creative officer at advertising agency Doner. “What we see now is a heightened awareness of the divide of things in the country, and you see that people want to make sure that brands are related to their values.”
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