brittney cottrell

Dangerously Political

brittney cottrell
Dangerously Political
Emily Landa Marketing Assistant

Emily Landa
Marketing Assistant

Discussing sensitive issues is difficult--especially in the advertising world. Is there a right way for companies to approach uncomfortable situations amongst political turmoil?

Often times when we’re unsure about the outcome of something, trial and error is a good method to fall back on—unless you’re a huge brand like McDonald’s or Pepsi. Lately, it seems like ads are flopping left and right, and all for the same reason: social media backlash. Today’s new (and terrifying) platforms like Facebook and Twitter put big brands constantly under a spotlight, and if audiences don’t like what they see, they aren’t afraid to sling a rotten tomato or two. In this day and age, “everyone's a critic” couldn’t be more true, or more damaging. So, what is it exactly that companies are doing wrong? In terms of sensitive political and social topics, is there a right way to join topical conversations without the effort coming off as a tacky marketing play? (Which, unfortunately, leads to advertising blunders that consumers don’t easily forget, e.g. Pepsi.) Or, is it better for brands to stick to a style of commercial know-how?

According to the Chair of Weber Shandwick’s Corporate Practice, Micho Spring, the answer lies within company principles, not politics. “Any response that a company or executive makes relating to current events should be used as an opportunity to communicate those values to employees and customers. CEOs in particular are being seen more and more as builders of community among their employees and customers, and consumers are increasingly expecting executives to speak out on hot-button issues.”

Take Target, for example. In response to North Carolina’s controversial HB2 bill last year, the retail giant announced that they would be spending $20 million on gender neutral restrooms in all but twenty-five locations. Naturally, there was an uproar—over 1.4 million people signed a petition to boycott the retail chain.

Despite sticking to core beliefs, Target faced negative responses that (may or may not have) resulted in financial loss—popular hashtags and campaigns surrounding #BoycottTarget and #FlushTarget continue efforts to spread the word against the retail company. Yet, Target hasn’t budged—along with denying any financial repercussions, the $20 million project is still in affect, with supportive campaigns like #standwithtarget to combat harsh backlash. 

So, with this checkered fallout in mind, was this the right way to go about contributing to a politically sensitive topic?

Ironically enough, Target doesn’t seem to have an answer to that. 

“We did not expect this kind of response. We frankly thought we might get to a half million. This thing has just exploded”, said Target’s executive Vice President, Ed Vitagliano

This leads into another important point to consider— anticipation. Preparing for the best and worst potential outcomes could not only cushion the blow, but help companies cement their brand identity and values, according to worldwide chair and CEO of Burson-Marsteller, Don Baer:

“Early interaction combined with accurate and effective messages and smart uses of various communications channels can often diffuse a situation before it becomes a problem.”

Baer also stresses the importance of conducting a risk assessment—analyzing every aspect of how a stance could affect your company, employees, customers. Organizations have to consider: how can this benefit or damage the company image? Are our integral values being attacked? If not, it may not be worth the risk contributing to a political/social discussion that doesn’t relate to a company’s identity and values. Because more likely than not, audiences will see right through it. Case in point: Pepsi’s infamous Kendall Jenner campaign.

It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t at least heard of the debacle (considering the amount of negative hype), but basically the ad shows Kendall Jenner ripping off a blonde wig during a modeling shoot, walking up to a group of rioters and uniformed police to give one of the officers a Pepsi. He accepts the soda drink with an appreciative smile, and everyone cheers after achieving peace between the two groups. Unfortunately, that’s not how most audiences interpreted the ad.

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Parody tweets, memes and videos were at the forefront of this ad campaign, not the ad itself. In response, the soda giant still made an effort to calm the storm.

Pepsi was trying to protect a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

While Pepsi (may or may not) have aimed to align this campaign with their company values, it’s not hard to see why this was a hit and miss. For one, when customers think of unity, peace and understanding, Pepsi doesn’t exactly come to mind (well, it might now in a satirical sense). From a consumer’s stand point, this looks like a blatant marketing tactic—it’s no secret that social/political topics are hot right now with audiences, but in terms of advertising, big brands have to tread very carefully, or face social media consequences.

In this case, Pepsi intentionally or not, spoke for consumers, and what consumers got from the controversial ad was “Pepsi can stop protests and create peace”. What also seemed to sting audiences was Kendall Jenner herself—a famous celebrity and symbol of wealth as the face of this campaign didn’t exactly complement an ad for unity, peace and understanding. So, what could Pepsi have done differently? What if instead of speaking for consumers, Pepsi offered a platform for people to speak for themselves? That’s where Heineken comes in.

Around the same time of the Pepsi debut, Heineken launched their own hot-button themed commercial, but the outcome couldn’t be more different. In case you’re unfamiliar with this ad, Heineken’s World’s Apart campaign introduces two sets of completely opposite individuals, and has them work together on a project, not knowing each other’s differences. Once their polar views are revealed, they must decide whether they want to “discuss it over a drink”. In the end, all of the guests decide to stay and connect despite their oppositions.

It’s safe to say the ad resonated with social media audiences in a much more positive way.

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Ads, whether in the form of viral videos or traditional spots, are by nature driven by some marketing strategy no matter the context, but the big difference between the Pepsi and Heineken ads has everything to do with voice. Most commercials show and tell consumers what they should see, hear, want—the World’s Apart ad turned this notion on it’s head. Unlike Pepsi, Heineken brought in everyday, relatable people discussing the social/political issues we face today. Heineken didn’t dominate this commercial—the subjects did. Providing a space for anyone to speak makes it clear that this isn’t just for publicity—this is for what Heineken, as a company, believes in.

This begs the question, is a neutral platform the right direction for companies that want to take part in social and political realms?

It might be the case for Heineken, but other organizations haven’t received the same amount of praise. Earlier this year, San-Francisco-based agency, Traction, introduced a new policy to their company called “Days of Action”, allowing employees to take two days to join any civil activism of their choosing. From the very beginning, CEO and co-founder Adam Kleinberg made it clear that this objective policy stems from their company’s values and beliefs, for the good of their employees:

“We believe democracy is a participatory institution, not just something that happens to you every four years. We wanted to support that. It gives employees two days off to participate in our democracy however they see fit. They can attend a protest or a rally—we stress peaceful protests—they can volunteer for a cause they believe in or they could work at a polling station or canvas for a candidate.”

Unfortunately, that didn’t prevent a storm of disapproval.

“We started to get inundated with emails, our Facebook page was attacked with one star reviews, even phone calls. We were called everything from socialists, to fascists, to candy asses,” said Kleinberg. 

Both Heineken and Traction offer the same thing: a safe space for anyone, whether subjects of a commercial or employees, to discuss and voice their beliefs. But then why did Traction’s policy backfire?

It seems while Heineken’s message and brand align nicely, Traction’s new policy didn’t come across to everyone (especially conservative media outlets) due to a lack of clear relation between company values and brand identity.

Breitbart published an article claiming that it now had evidence that people were in fact being paid to protest—as Traction does not dock its employees’ pay for taking these two days to participate in some form of service.”

Misunderstandings like these continue to snowball and get out of control, making it so much more difficult for a company to express their true intentions. Traction’s goals were genuine, but incorporating this policy alone won’t do the trick—making it a part of what the company believes as an entity, employees and all, would have been more effective. There’s no way to completely prevent negative publicity (thanks, Internet) but clarifying and preserving core values as a brand changes everything.

While most companies take strategic action to actively comment on a hot (but touchy) topic, others can be pulled into the conversation against their will. And again, it can be difficult to figure out the right way to respond.

When Trump introduced the controversial immigration ban earlier this year, brands were as divided as citizens. Big companies like Google, Airbnb and Starbucks made a quick and clear stand against the legislation. Which, makes sense, after witnessing social media boycotts of Trump-supporting brands like New Balance and Under Armour. And for brands like Skittles and Nordstrom, they didn’t really have a choice in the matter.

Because of Trump’s extreme social presence, getting sucked into an unwarranted conversation can put brands under an awkward spotlight. Sadly, for Skittles, that’s exactly what happened. In the middle of the ban controversy, Donald Trump Jr. compared Syrian refugees to candy, stating, “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

With over 30,000 mentions on Twitter, Skittles would have to decided whether to speak for themselves, or be spoken for. Fortunately, the candy brand handled the situation like a pro.

“Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing,” said VP of corporate affairs, Denise Young.

Blunt, honest, to the point—Twitter audiences praised Skittles’ retort with the trending hashtag, #Welcome Skittles.

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It’s a little scary to think that Skittles was dragged into this uncomfortable situation based on a single tweet—but that’s the world we live in. The “engagement era” is an unpredictable and terrifying time to be advertising (especially when it comes to sensitive political topics) there’s always a chance for a brand to get roped into something. But, it’s also an opportunity to show your intimate audiences what you truly stand for, and as Skittles made very clear, it can work to your company’s advantage.  

So, with such a mixed bag of outcomes, can brands be an effective resource in political and social discussions? And is there a way to approach these topics without dividing audiences? It depends—developing a campaign around a controversial topic and creating a platform to discuss controversial topics obviously yielded very different outcomes, but that doesn’t shield either from negative feedback. Even Target’s genuine, gender-neutral proposal received such horrible backlash, despite sticking to company values that keep both customers and employees in mind. No matter how well you handle a situation, always anticipate the best and worst responses. 

Yet, the one thing all companies can really control is how their brand identity and campaigns align with what they believe in. For Target, Heineken and Skittles, their statements were honest reflections that not only benefited their organization, but also their employees, customers and social audiences. All you can really do is assess the situation and ask yourself, “Does this concern me? Is making a statement going to add value to my company or damage it? And if I do make a statement, am I on the right side of history?” These are all important questions that need to be taken into consideration before joining any political or social conversation through your brand’s voice. Knowing if and when to take a stand (for the right reasons) makes all the difference, but at the end of the day, it’s a leap of faith.  


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