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Is There Any Place for Politics in Advertising?

March 28th, 2018   ||    by Oriana Schwindt   ||    No Comments

This year’s crop of Super Bowl ads seemed to follow a maxim of “No politics in advertising”—until Ram Trucks rolled out a spot for its “Built to Serve” volunteer program using a voice-over from one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches.

It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes for the denizens of Twitter and Facebook to dig up the rest of King’s speech and point out that King specifically called out not just materialism and capitalism, but car companies in particular. The result was several days of discussion about politics in advertising, and a rather public flogging of the company along with the King estate, which controls the rights to King’s speeches.

Lean In, or Stay Away?

So, should marketers avoid anything that might be construed as a political message in their ads? The easy answer is “Yes.” But such advice is increasingly impossible to follow.

As most marketers are now aware, a political motive can and will be ascribed to just about every move a company makes. Starbucks chooses to make its cups solid red for the holiday season and cries of political correctness spring up, according to Vox. Coca-Cola debuts a Super Bowl spot in which “America the Beautiful” is sung in different languages, and an outcry about immigration ensues, with #BoycottCoke trending on Twitter, according to the Los Angeles Times. Pepsi rolls out an ad that ends with reality TV-star Kendall Jenner stopping a potential protester clash with police by offering a police officer a can of Pepsi, and the company gets an earful from activist groups.

For some viewers, any ad taking a political stance is going to ring hollow. An ad’s purpose, after all, is mainly to endear viewers to a brand.

But rising anti-corporate sentiment on both sides of the political spectrum has made viewers resistant to any such attempt. In response to any TV ad, they’re going to tweet out that GIF of actor Steve Buscemi’s 30 Rock character wearing a backward baseball cap and asking, “How do you do, fellow kids?”

And yet many others are willing to listen if marketers have a message. Among millennials worldwide, 76 percent regard “business as a force for positive social impact,” according to a 2017 Deloitte study.

Youth in Revolt

An important factor to consider when deciding whether your brand should embrace a political message is that the coveted 18–34 demographic is incredibly politically active. Millennials, now defined as those born between 1981 and 1997, are showing more of an enthusiasm for the upcoming midterm elections than they ever have, according to Pew Research.

“Like a chain reaction, heightened interest in politics amid my fellow millennials has unfurled on both sides of the spectrum and everywhere in between,” journalist Brendan Bradley wrote for The Hill.

And as we see with even younger groups—like the high school students demanding gun control after the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida—this political activism isn’t merely the phase of a single news cycle.

Backlash vs. Discussion

It’s also worth delving into where criticizers of the Ram Trucks and Pepsi ads were actually aiming their “backlash”—it was not against politics in advertising per se, but rather the veneer of politics in advertising.

While the Ram Trucks ad was for its volunteer program, viewers knew they were supposed to associate that ad with the brand itself, and using excerpts from an anti-materialistic speech in a branding exercise can easily be read as tone-deaf.

In Pepsi’s much-maligned 2017 ad, The Advocate said the company was guilty of misappropriating the image of a black female activist peacefully holding her hands out to be arrested, replacing her with Jenner and using that image to sell soda.

But “backlash” also implies consequences that industry observers didn’t actually see on the business side.

Coca-Cola didn’t suffer any significant sales decreases as a result of that #BoycottCoke dustup following the 2014 Super Bowl. In fact, the company credited its Super Bowl and Winter Olympics campaigns with a sequential improvement in brand volume in its quarterly results. Volume in Pepsi’s beverages division was essentially flat in the quarter that saw the controversy over its ad with Kendall Jenner, per the company’s quarterly results.

It’s too soon after the Super Bowl to tell if Ram Trucks sales have slowed, but the smart money is on at most a negligible difference from the previous year.

Courage, Convictions, and Controversy

Politics in advertising isn’t innately controversial, and even purposefully nonpolitical ads can now be interpreted as taking a political stance. Crafting an ad that conveys a message your company truly believes in can work. It’s just not for the faint of conviction.

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