Why we’re increasingly asking consumers to vote with their wallets
You’ll be happy to know I threw away all my Ivanka Trump dresses. Or maybe you won’t be. Let’s just say they weren’t flattering my figure.
Despite the political climate these days, I’m not traipsing through Safeway, Target, or Macy’s with a list of brands I need to support and others I need to shun. And I doubt most people are. But for many brands, it’s become increasingly difficult to not get caught in a crossfire of politically-tinged controversy. And since November it’s turned into a raging shitstorm.
So can brands safely stay neutral these days? Should we work for clients whose values we don’t personally support? Do we all have to share the same ideology to work together? Is marketing and advertising responsible for the current schism in some way?
Brands are, after all, corporations or subsets of corporations. Pretty much all consumer-facing brands exist to be profit-making entities, not altruistic organizations. That’s not to say some don’t aspire to do good — just that they can’t do much good with a negative balance sheet.
Dare I say, a relentless consumerist march through the industrial revolution is what made America great. It gave us a first-world standard of living as well as First World Problems memes. But peek under the surface of any large brand and you’ll find an underbelly of natural resource extraction and labor exploitation combined with lobbying efforts designed to curry favor with politicians for the approval or rejection of assorted laws and regulations.
And frankly, the advertising industry has been there every step of the way.
A bit of history is in order here. In his book “One Nation Under God,” historian Kevin Kruse points out that it was the heads of several large advertising agencies who, in concert with others, helped corporate America burnish its image after the Great Depression. They spearheaded ad campaigns and PR efforts insisting that capitalism and profit were god-given antidotes to FDR and his administration’s implementation of New Deal policies. Just try to imagine some of today’s most-admired ad people openly doing that.
Advertising told you a new car every other year was a good idea. As were engagement diamond rings, cigarettes, TV dinners, aspartame-laden diet colas, and everything else laying around in a modern home. Indeed, these were products made by brands with very politically-savvy management.
This still exists today. Walk through your house and you’ll find all sorts of products made by companies whose leaders don’t share all your values. You just aren’t aware of it since many companies simply don’t make their behavior public, and certainly don’t make a big stink about it in their ad campaigns.
So what changed? In 2017, are all brands potentially divisive? Why are so many people hot and bothered by what brands, and the executives who run them, do or don’t say?
Generally speaking, two things happened — one on the marketer side and one on the consumer side.
First, it became passé for advertisers to sell their products and services by touting benefits and features, instead focusing their messages on beliefs, emotional appeals, and values. How many times have we, as marketing people, told ourselves that brands should be “purpose-driven” or have some codified belief system? If a brand didn’t have any truly held beliefs, ad agencies and branding firms simply invented them. We attempted to start a deeper “conversation,” which meant pushing people’s buttons in new, more provocative ways. That’s why a soap brand like Dove now gets on a soapbox.
Then, of course, there’s the instant information we can all access. Consumers have a vocal way to accept, reject, protest, or embrace, almost immediately, any of the revelations about brands and their political stances. Combine that with social media-fueled rumors, memes, innuendo, and fake news, and you’ve got a recipe for scrutiny that brands sometimes don’t invite and can’t always effectively handle.
So now, it doesn’t take much for a brand to simultaneously stir up positive and negative sentiment. Nordstrom. Uber. Starbucks. Budweiser. Cadillac. And those are just a few making news in the past month. Even Vegas wouldn’t take odds on who’ll be next.
One of the fundamental questions we, as both marketers and consumers, need to ask ourselves is whether we’re willing to accept a brand — just like a crazy relative — that doesn’t hold the same opinions as we do. Of course, the current so-called conventional wisdom is that consumers, particularly millennials, instantly gravitate towards brands with strong belief systems or shared values. The truth is way more complicated than that. Many brands have survived just fine without taking any substantial social or political stands at all, and prefer to keep their lobbying activities under the radar.
Besides, it’s one thing to run an ad campaign that preaches values like inclusivity, diversity, or environmental awareness. It’s another to advocate for or oppose politicians and policies that directly impact those values. Marketers routinely do all of that simultaneously. And that’s where it gets messy.
For some people in advertising and marketing, it presents a dilemma: Should we question our clients’ beliefs? Are we prepared to quit working for someone whose values don’t align with ours? Where’s the line? Are we willing to separate how we behave as marketing professionals from our own consumer behavior?
Those aren’t easy questions to answer. Because humans don’t respond rationally to these issues. When brands involve themselves in political issues, they aren’t always treated equally. Boycotts, backlash, and fervor surrounding these issues are arbitrary, unpredictable, disproportionate, and not necessarily fair. Some brands get tarnished, others get away scot-free.
Now it’s easier for a startup or niche brand to claim the moral high ground as opposed to a conglomerate that’s been around for decades. However, all brands need to be held equally accountable. If Audi wants to run ads claiming it believes in equal pay for equal work and spend $5 million to say it, fine. But they, their dealers, and their ad agency need to back up their words with action. Otherwise, it not only hurts their credibility, it reflects badly on all brands that put issue-oriented marketing at the forefront of their messaging.
And there’s a huge risk of issue-oriented marketing becoming wallpaper. I’d wager that most of the time, people simply don’t care about the beliefs of the majority of the brands they use. There’s just not enough time in the day to be so woke or outraged.
Still, in the era of Trump tweets that reference brands and a general level of hyper-partisanship, some marketing and advertising folks are clamoring to choose sides. It’s easy for an ad agency strategist or Creative Director to say, “All brands need to be activist now.” It’s another thing altogether to say that in front of a company’s Board of Directors who sweat the quarterly earnings reports and how government policies affect them.
So we’re going to see more brands get caught up in today’s politics. And more consumers looking to tout, or shame, the brands they feel passionate about. Many will demand that corporations, and the brands they control, take strong stands in their advertising, even if there’s a bit of hypocrisy and inconsistency. Consumers don’t control brands, but they do control their wallets. The best thing advertisers and marketers can do is tell the truth about their businesses, and always be prepared for the consequences.
Inevitably though, even the brands we love will let us down. No brand, no corporation, no politician, and no person are perfect. It isn’t always fair. It isn’t always right. It isn’t always productive.
But hey, that’s the business — the business of politics and the business of marketing. It’s getting harder to tell the difference.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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