The recent debacle that was the Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert has again raised the debate of whether brands and companies should ever be political. I would like to begin by saying business in its corporate sense is inherently political and has dominated our political reality since the fall of the Berlin wall. Whether it is through lobbying to ensure their interests are represented or ‘donating’ copious amounts of money to political parties and campaigns, ensuring their interests are not just heard but implemented seems to be a central tenant of the modern corporate model. On the other side of this is the simpler question; should brands such as Coke, Pepsi, Dove or Heineken take a position on ongoing social, political and economic issues?
It’s the economy stupid
Many criticized businesses for taking a stance during the Brexit debate in 2016. Businesses, like athletes should not get involved in politics despite often being inherently political (The Berlins Games 1936, the US boycott of Moscow 1988 to name but a view). This merely reflected the public debate, Brexit was a socio-political issue not economic and so businesses should not offer an opinion. Yet it was businesses who would be most adversely affected if the vote went against their best interests. Though the vote didn’t stay on the topic of the economy for very long it is this area in which the EU was originally set up, and consequently in this debate it was important business voices were heard and respected. The effects are still to be seen but the early indications are not positive; a sliding pound, what seems like perpetual political instability and the general sense of uncertainty has gripped the nation. The Brexit debate related more to business being inherently political discussed above. Businesses have a role to play in the political discussion, more so in issues on the economy. Socially the role of brands and businesses are not as necessary and there are limits to the extent in which they should get involved.
Brands such as Ben & Jerrys, Starbucks and Patagonia have made making social statements a part of their brand identity and it has proved a success for those brands. Recently however we have entered a strange time where brands, not ordinarily associated with being socially conscious, have decided the best stance to take is not taking one at all. What this means is all sides and opinions are treated as equally valid. The issue with this is that it is a very difficult concept to convey in an increasingly polarized climate. A recent Heineken advert attempts to get people discuss their differences over a beer, although well executed, this too committed the cardinal sin of the ‘non-stance’. Is the opinion of a climate change skeptic equal to that of someone who accepts the work of 97% of people who have dedicated their lives to researching the effects of global warming on the planet? I would personally not say so, and this shows a complicity to ideas such as the now infamous utterance offered by Michael Gove in midst of the Brexit campaign that Britons ‘have had enough of experts’. I posit this is not a valid ‘opinion’ to have. Whilst I may have issues with the advert it has received positive reviews. This may be because it achieved something Pepsi couldn’t. An advert which could potentially open a discussion about the ‘discourse’ of views of our time. We saw another less successful attempt at this type of ‘non-stance’ by Dove. In a discussion about breast feeding, somehow still a controversial topic in our society, their poster read “75% say breastfeeding in public is fine. 25% say put them away. What’s your way?”. Basic maths aside the campaign has been rightly panned. In my opinion, the worst part of the ad was equating the opinions of the 75% with that of 25% as if they were equal. Like the Pepsi ad this was pulled due to overwhelmingly bad reactions to it. Heineken, Pepsi and Dove have arguably done the same thing, neither brand has actually taken a stance on the issues that feature in their adverts, but yet only one was greeted with any with any form of positivity. Big corporations have a bigger responsibility in how they act rather than how they advertise and market their image.