How brands can respond to an ever-changing U.S. political climate

How brands can respond to an ever-changing U.S. political climate

January 26, 2021

–by Anita Schillhorn

As part of a U.S. Spotlight series by Warc, McKinney LA Director of Strategy Anita Schillhorn wrote about how brands can navigate marketing in a polarized nation. (A version of this article can be found on Warc.com.)

I got the assignment to write this article in mid-December 2020. Vaccine rollouts had begun, and social feeds were full of hopeful images of medical workers getting shots in their arms. In spite of ongoing legal attempts to question U.S. presidential election results, the divisiveness of 2020 was receding as Joe Biden’s win was confirmed again and again, despite numerous bogus legal challenges attempted by the Trump campaign. After a tumultuous four years, Biden messaged about unity and civility. 2021 was shaping up to look quite different from 2020. 

McKinney conducted research last year into the American consumer mindset entering the fourth quarter of 2020. After a summer of Black Lives Matter protests and an unpredictable election season, we found that political division and social unrest outstripped even the pandemic in terms of causing people to worry. Months of quarantine and pandemic news coupled with a contentious political environment had worn down the American psyche, and people had little certainty of what the future might hold in terms of the pandemic or the presidency. It’s no wonder consumers felt restricted, conflicted, and overwhelmed.  But, at least the stress of it all, was something Americans agreed on. Across races and political affiliations, around 70% of consumers agreed that the state of the political divide and social unrest related to racial issues was either extremely or somewhat bad.

Leading up to the election, a few brands tried their hands at directly addressing the partisanship with unity messaging, but those attempts tended to fall flat. Oreo ran an ad that showed a snuggly donkey and elephant at a fair, which Fast Company called “a hopelessly baby-brained attempt at civility.” A Gap ad showing a blue and red sweatshirt photoshopped together, was quickly panned, and eventually pulled.

But most brands stayed out of the political fray, like the rest of us, holding their breath and seeking joy in the holidays. The brands that were successful in late 2020 leaned into ways to make life a little better for people, whether by laughing at it, like Match.com’s “When Satan Met 2020” ads, or pulling heart strings, like Amazon’s holiday ad, or providing some other kind of welcome escape, like the meditation app Calm, which sponsored election coverage. 

So with a vaccine on the horizon and a sense of political predictability, many Americans were looking forward to 2021. Brands certainly were. Although coronavirus case numbers were on the rise and there were still a few weeks left in Donald Trump’s presidency, there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel that offered a more predictable landscape in which to advertise. 

But then, the January 6 Capitol Hill riot

Less than a week into 2021, however, the tentative sense of optimism evaporated. The hope of a unified America imploded on January 6 as a group of Trump supporters easily – and lethally – invaded the U.S. Capitol while Congress was in the midst of certifying the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States. The repercussions of this moment have sent shockwaves through the U.S. and have renewed the uncertainty around the political environment. 

What the riots demonstrated is that the fractures in the American psyche aren’t going to be easily healed by a new president alone. There are irreconcilable differences between the Stop the Steal movement – which believes, falsely, that the election was stolen, and everyone else, and it’s unclear whether Americans can truly reconcile anytime soon across the widening gap in the political spectrum. The violence at the Capitol was fueled by misinformation, isolation, and conspiracy, and it has already radically changed the way we see 2021. So, with that in mind, actions brands should take are somewhat different than they might have been even a month ago. Here are three implications and how brands can respond. 

1. It has moved the goalpost on American partisanship.

Prior to the Capitol Hill riots, the fundamental difference between those who voted for President Trump and those who voted for Biden seemed ideological. But once the rioters breached the Capitol and lives were lost, it became apparent that the goalposts were not where we thought they were; they were really between those who falsely believed Trump’s claims that he won the election and those who recognized that Biden won. Even with pleas for unity and calls for peace, it will take time for those who have long been fueled by misinformation to distance themselves from violent rhetoric. The situation continues to unfold and more incidents may arise.

It has created challenges for brands on how to message and behave. In response to the riot, some brands entered the fray. When a container of Axe was shown in one of the images of the aftermath, the brand disavowed a relationship with the rioters on Twitter. Other brands condemned the act, with Ben & Jerry’s being the most vocal in calling for Trump’s removal from office in a thread on Twitter. And, according to Ad Age, some companies paused their online campaigns and put a hold on major announcements. 

For many brands, however, there was little to say or do. During the Black Lives Matter protests, many brands publicly examined their relationships with race, and they committed to doing better. Black voices found new platforms and the language around race grew more nuanced. In this moment – with the conflation of white supremacy, misinformation, conspiracy theory, and violent insurgency – the correct response is much less clear. 

How brands can respond: In a highly volatile time, brands want to be on the right side of history, and sometimes that can mean not adding fuel to the fire. Weighing in on the issue through messaging publicly may come off as trite or even as taking advantage of a difficult time in America’s history. Rather, brands can serve as a source of consistency and comfort in a time of crisis. Finding the common ground in our target audiences can help elevate the brand beyond the politics of the day. For example, Degree deodorant’s newest work with NBA star Kevin Durant celebrates movement, in a COVID-friendly ad showing individuals working out. And one of the brands McKinney handles, Little Caesar’s Pizza, has focused on humor and a fictional competitor in Big Pizza. 

2. It has increased scrutiny on brands’ associations. 

There are other ways that brands find themselves associated with the insurgency, and they are examining how they may be accountable in terms of donations, partnerships, and employment. 

Besides the well-publicized removal of Trump and other right-wingers from social media platforms, other companies have also acted in response to the Capitol Hill riots. Paypal, GoFundMe, and other funding platforms have removed access for prominent far-right organizations. Chase, Marriott, and dozens of other companies are pausing their political donations and canceling donations to politicians involved in questioning the vote count and inciting violence. Companies are also firing employees who have been identified as part of the riots. And when companies don’t respond quickly, consumers have been weighing in. For example, the Chicago Tribune reports that a tattoo parlor in Illinois was bombarded with negative Yelp reviews after its employees were photographed at the event. 

How brands can respond: Usually, marketers don’t feel the need to communicate about political donations and employee management; however, there will be increased scrutiny from press and consumers about the role companies have played in recent events. Brands should assess their associations and make a plan of action to respond to current and future challenges. Those associations extend to agency relationships, as we saw with The Richards Group’s highly publicized implosion after the founder’s racist remarks. 

3. It has demonstrated the power of misinformation in the digital landscape and highlighted the dire need to control that misinformation. 

Social media sites and hosting platforms have long walked a thin line between free speech and content management. Advertisers have been increasingly concerned about brand safety, especially when it comes to programmatic placements where there is less control. 

The social media giants who have been grappling with how to handle misinformation saw the direct implications of their lack of moderation and began to finally take more aggressive actions in removing Trump and others spreading misinformation and inciting violence. Parler, the newer social media site that played a role in helping the mob get organized, was removed by its host, Amazon Web Services, as well as from the Google and Apple app stores. Campaign Monitor and other email services also discontinued their service to Trump. 

How brands can respond: In December, Twitter announced an increase in third-party monitoring on brand suitability and brand safety measures. But brands continue to unknowingly support misinformation on YouTube and other channels, and they must be vigilant in monitoring and managing where their ads show up. Watchdogs like Sleeping Giant and Nandini Jammi on Twitter, and organizations like Check My Ads are calling it out when they see continued support of advertising on misinformation sites and channels. 

Brands must also be more proactive about their brand safety in paid media; direct media buys allow for more control than programmatic buys. Brands can also demand more accountability from programmatic services. 

All in all, the landscape has been altered, and 2021 is shaping up differently than anyone anticipated. Even if brands don’t overtly message about unity in the face of partisanship, there are many actions they can take to change the misinformation landscape and support democratic principles. And, as people continue to face the anxiety of witnessing an insurgency on top of the pandemic and other stressors, brands can play a role in providing a little respite.

Takeaways

–Even though the presidential election in the U.S. has been decided, events since that time have heightened the need for brands to pay close attention to their response to unprecedented political unrest.

–During a highly volatile era, brands want to be on the right side of history, and sometimes that can mean not adding fuel to the fire; one piece of guidance is to serve as a source of consistency and comfort in a time of crisis, finding common ground among target audiences.

–At a time of increased scrutiny from press and consumers about the role companies have played in recent events, brands should assess their associations and make a plan to respond to current and future challenges, communicating about topics such as political donations if need be.

– Despite new safeguards at platforms such as Twitter surrounding brand suitability and safety measures, brands continue to unknowingly support misinformation; they must be vigilant in monitoring and managing where their ads show up.