Should brands use their advertising campaigns to take a social or political stance? For a long time, there has been an unspoken agreement between brands and stakeholders that it is safest to remain neutral when it comes to social and political issues.
But what happens when brands have reflected on their own morals and beliefs and no longer want to stay quiet? What happens when they decide to take their influence and use it in a meaningful way to spark change?
Having a social conscience is good. However, it’s a huge risk particularly when it is not well-researched or is out-of-character. And when brands haven’t calculated the possible outcomes, they could suffer backlash that could ultimately change the way they are perceived by the public, particularly if they don’t handle it well.
Ultimately, the reason why connecting a product or service with any social or political movement is risky is because it feels forced. It has come to a point where people have become so untrusting of brands that they will question the company’s intentions whenever they want to include themselves in politically-charged discussions.
When Johnny Walker introduced Jane Walker - a limited-edition version of its scotch featuring a female version of its top-hat-wearing male icon - in time for Women’s Day and Women’s History Month earlier this year, the public perceived the intentional timing as pandering. When the brand claimed that the creation of Jane was so the brand would be less intimidating to women; they actually highlighted the fact that they were intimidating to women.
Another brand whose marketing campaign failed after it was associated with a political movement was the one by Pepsi with Kendall Jenner. The reaction was quite negative and Pepsi was forced to withdraw this global ad campaign just days after it was released.
The ad referenced protest imagery and was meant to give a platform to the Black Lives Matter movement. The commercial shows Kendall Jenner handing a police officer during a protest a can of Pepsi as a sign of peace. Audiences criticized the ad for using a “privileged” white model to play “peacemaker” in a racially charged argument.
For some brands, voicing their political views has been easy. Brands like Diesel have a company culture built on non-conformity and equality. The Make Love not Walls campaign is obviously calling out Trump’s proposed Mexico - US border wall. Diesel also has a long history of celebrating diversity and advocating for LGBT rights. So when Diesel takes a political stand, it feels perfectly natural and embraced by its audience.
It is not always understandable why brands want to build campaigns around social and political issues regardless of whether or not they care deeply about the issues. Some want to take the opportunity to take a stand on an issue to win the positive praise of a demographic they haven’t won over in the past.
However, when brands who don’t typically dabble in politics or social movements suddenly want to join the conversation, audiences become skeptical of their intentions.
Do they want to express their opinions on these matters because it aligns with their mission and ethos, or are they merely creating noise to stay relevant?