You Got Your Politics in my Commercial

Sean Sutherland
Jan 21, 2019 · 6 min read
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As an industry, advertising has always strived to be as reflective of the times as possible in order to better represent brands as relatable and favorable by the general public. During tumultuous times this can either have the intended effect, or completely fail to endear the general public as to how “woke” a given company is. This has been true for the past several decades; brands gamble on just how “political” or “forward-leaning” they can take their messaging without alienating a large majority of their market share. Brands want to come off as “with it”, and this’ll be no more true than as we approach the annual modern gladiatorial bout that is El Plato Supreme.

Inevitably, with the proliferation of YouTube, these commercials should start leaking soon, emerging into the cultural zeitgeist with as many characters that armchair Creative Directors from across the world can muster on Twitter or Facebook with their two cents. And while it’s rare, these “soft launches” for the commercials actually are paid attention to; companies have millions — approximately $5M in 2018 — invested in their coveted ad slots and they need to be quite certain that we’ll be talking about their ad, in the right kind of tones, the morning after.

With so many ads out there now, the worst thing possible for these groups is to release something that completely misses the mark, but it definitely happens — especially when trying to make a political statement or reflect a shifting social paradigm.

They can’t all be the “Hilltop” though, the 1971 Coca-Cola commercial that wanted to buy the world a coke and live in idyllic harmony. There’s some great examples, recently, of where this practice of mixing politics and marketing can go good, go bad, and just plain go confusing. Here’s a look back at three such ads.

Good — Gillette’s “The Best Man Can Be”

Gillette, of the Proctor & Gamble stable of brands, are best known as one of the largest companies to ever sponsor a Twitch Streamer, made some waves recently with their response to the #MeToo movement and a resurgence of toxic masculinity throughout the nation.

Featuring clips of Terry Crews speaking in front of Congress in favor of the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Right Act, scenes of men taking a stand against chauvinistic acts, and a plethora of viral videos of men showing the right way to handle bullying, self-esteem, and other issues related to the theme of “masculinity”, the spot is a tremendous step forward for not only the brand but for getting the conversation going; a conversation that Gillette isn’t backing down from, in the face of a nearly 1.2M negative reactions on YouTube (as of posting).

Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette brand director for North America, had this to say: “This is an important conversation happening… we feel compelled to both address it and take action of our own.”

The WSJ had a great write-up on the polarizing reaction, and the company’s equally defiant response to those complaining about the nature of the message: essentially, they have no plans to pull the spot and are embracing the passionate dialogue that will follow after it’s viewing.

It’s important to note that P&G is no stranger to using advertising as a way to promote their company’s stances — previously they’ve faced topics such as gender equality, immigration, and gun control.

What makes this one so impactful, and one of the better examples of mixing politics in advertising is the serious tone and pacing at which they handle the subject matter. Opening with recreations of misogynistic events that are universally relatable, including those previously used in Gillette advertising, also helps them to admit the shortcoming of the past with an eye of just how possible it is to make things better for future generations. It’s wholly empowering, relatable, and true success for advertising of this nature.

Check out the ad itself here, if you haven’t seen it yet.

Bad — Kendall Jenner’s “Live for the Moment” Pepsi Ad

If this ad was any more off the mark, they would’ve used the Mentos theme song.

What better way to alienate an entire generation than by trivializing and creating one of the most tone-deaf homages to an important social issue and movement? Well, that’s just what Pepsi did with the pulled 2017 commercial, in which Kendall Jenner invokes the spirits of the 60s by breaking past the protest lines — after they walk march past her photo shoot — and shares a Pepsi with an unthreatening authority figure.

Accused of trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement as well as civil rights protests and marches from the past, the ad was quickly removed from Pepsi’s YouTube channel and was stopped, immediately, from running on television. While trying to project a global message of unity, peace, understanding over the sharing of a can of fizzy soda, they clearly missed the mark and admitted as much.

Despite the backlash, the fresh meme content, and a call for an overall ban on Pepsi products, it really didn’t have an impact on their sales. In fact, in the subsequent quarters after the release of the commercial, PepsiCo’s blamed sluggish demands for its sodas, not on the Kendall Jenner fiasco, but on the company’s misguided focus and push toward healthier drinks.

Whether that’s true or not, Pepsi even bumbled the pull, apologizing to the wrong people. Baltimore-born activist, DeRay McKesson put it thusly: “ Pepsi didn’t apologize to all of the people who have been protesting for two years, didn’t apologize to the people who dedicated their lives and their time to these issues and to understand the urgency to them because in so many cases, there’s so much at stake, including people’s lives.”

Weird — 84 Lumber

You can file this in Ugly, Weird, Disappointing, Cowardly, whatever you feel like doing, but the 84 Lumber Ad that ultimately ran during the 2017 Super Bowl was apparently not the originally intended ad. The Washington Post and LA Times have much better write-ups then we can provide you here but here are the liner notes:

In an ad for the Pennsylvanian lumber supply company, a young mother and daughter trek across the Mexican landscape in order to make it to Mexico. In the “too-hot-for-tv” portion of the ad that only was available during on the 84 Lumber website, the pair makes it to a wall only to find a group of caring tradesman has made a door in the wall, ending with the tagline “The will to succeed is always welcome here.”

Obviously, there are direct correlations you can make here between Trump, the immigration debate, and the awful chant of “Build that Wall”. And while some heralded 84 Lumber for its stance, the official intent, as clarified by the company’s CEO, Maggie Hardy Magerko, is not about the controversial topic, but rather that 84 Lumber is a “company of opportunity.” The company even went so far as to say that this was the start of a national hiring initiative, that, also, suspiciously, never got off the ground after the debut of the commercial.

It’s a damn shame that Fox pulled the original ad, just as much as it’s disappointing that 84 Lumber clearly did an about-face when confronted with a negative reaction and threats of pulling sales or other business commitments. The ad was truly impactful, featuring a really uplifting and sobering look into immigration, despite what they claim otherwise.

A Look Ahead

Whether brands will have learned from the failures and successes of their contemporaries this year, remains to be seen, what is known is that we are in for another year of societal change, national crises, and outrage that comes with a flexible, national zeitgeist.

As advertisers, we need to understand the power of the creative, and that, whatever the topic, you approach it responsibly and accurately. Stand by your words, your creative, and make sure you’re on the right side of history.

Other notable examples:


Sean Sutherland

Written by


Kapowza - We're a Baltimore based independent full-service creative agency that's made up of some nice folks that make some incredible work. We partner with our clients to make them unforgettable by harnessing the storytelling power of design, video, and digital.

Sean Sutherland

Written by


Kapowza - We're a Baltimore based independent full-service creative agency that's made up of some nice folks that make some incredible work. We partner with our clients to make them unforgettable by harnessing the storytelling power of design, video, and digital.

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