Political Themes in Advertising: Dive in or Stay Away?
This article was featured in Insights Association
Written by Tanya Chirayil, Phoenix MI Director of Research, BE Solution & Delivery.
Published March 17, 2020
In recent years, brands like Nike, Budweiser, Pepsi, and Facebook increasingly incorporated socio-political themes into their advertising for a variety of reasons, ranging from selling a new product, attracting and retaining customers, inspiring brand loyalty, or differentiating their product in the crowded marketplace.
Based on what we’ve seen from our Phoenix Brand Effect data over the years, the Super Bowl has been at the forefront of this trend and is known for showcasing these types of socio-politically themed ads, which tend to be polarizing. Although 2020 was the first year in which political campaign ads aired during the game, Super Bowl LIV showed us that a growing number of brands are taking a step back from this tactic in their advertising, relying more on humor and heart-warming themes to grab viewers’ attention.
Given today’s heightened socio-political climate and the influence of social media, the impact – both positive and negative – of a brand taking a political position has raised the stakes to a new level.
Political advertisements can be polarizing, and brands should always expect at least some level of audience blowback. Our data indicates that taking a stance can run the risk of inciting boycotts and making your brand stand out negatively in the marketplace. A couple of notable Super Bowl advertisers have run into this issue in the past, with their ads coming off inauthentic or off-base, resulting in a sharp reaction on social media. Such reactions have the potential to lead consumers to decide their beliefs align more with your competitors than with you.
We even observed brands backing a seemingly widely-supported cause can have adverse effects. For example, if a brand advocates for gender pay equality but doesn’t live up to the practice in real life, consumers might see the brand as hypocritical and deceptive. If your brand does decide to come out in support of a social or political stance, make sure you actually follow through with the practice to avoid coming across as inauthentic or appearing to jump on a bandwagon.
On the other hand, coming out in support of a social or political issue can be a great way to identify and appeal to new customers, some of whom might align with your brand solely based on their political views. Younger generations, in particular, tend to place greater importance on choosing brands they align with socially and politically. Brands like Ben & Jerry’s or Patagonia are known for wearing their political and social affiliations proudly and have established a loyal following because of it. Refusing to stay neutral or play it safe on a specific issue can inspire brand loyalty, differentiation in the marketplace and demonstrate that your brand stands for something more than profits.
However, when taking a political stance, there are key factors to consider. First, make sure that whatever is being said is done with authenticity and diligence, or you run the risk of the campaign falling flat, or worse, having a negative impact. Commit to the issue as part of a larger solution, rather than a temporary reaction, which can come off as a scheme to increase sales or clicks. Pepsi’s 2017 ad featuring supermodel Kendall Jenner was met with harsh and widespread criticism, mostly saying that the soft drink giant was attempting to capitalize on a nationwide protest movement. The ad was pulled shortly after airing, but the damage had already been done.
Be transparent when expressing your position, and your brand will be more likely to survive the scrutiny, regardless of the negativity the message incurs. When doing so, be sure to communicate your stance through a clear message or an engaging story to hook your audience; this will help personify the issue and tell a story that viewers can relate to. Also, make sure to convey your message across various platforms (TV, social media, digital, etc.) so that it becomes part of your overall brand voice.
While some brands are expressing interest in getting political with their advertising, they must weigh the risks and benefits before getting involved. Based on what we have seen over the past two decades, our advice is to make sure the decision is not made as a temporary measure or to be trendy, but as a longer-term strategy for authenticity that aligns with your brand values.
Be prepared for negative fallout and scrutiny; your brand’s reaction and subsequent engagement with consumers, especially across social media, will underscore your authenticity. Remember, transparency is key! Consider whether the position aligns with your customer base or who you are trying to attract (i.e., Millennials are generally more comfortable with a political stance, while Boomers tend to prefer not mixing politics and advertising).
Staying neutral is usually a safe bet, but runs the risk of causing your consumer base to feel as though your brand isn’t doing enough to address a particular issue or is too timid to take a stand. Playing it safe also won’t get your brand recognized in the marketplace, and as we’ve seen from brands like Peloton, all press is good press.
Whichever direction you choose, make sure your brand’s position is backed up in practice, is supported by all advertising platforms, and can hold up to the scrutiny that might follow. Otherwise, you risk doing more harm than good.Back to Explore