My friend, a marketing executive at a Fortune 500 company, is in charge of her company’s ad campaigns. In the past, they’ve made loud proclamations decrying intolerance, racism, and homophobia. The most recent ad, however, just involved some people doing something totally mundane. To protect my friend’s identity, I won’t tell you what they were actually doing, but picture something uncontroversial that all Americans like: dancing in a living room, baking in a cozy kitchen during the holidays, or riding in the car with the top down.
“It was so boring,” she moaned. “We didn’t say anything interesting.”
Not saying anything interesting has become the go-to marketing strategy for many companies these days. It’s simply too much of a minefield to take a stance on any issue while trying to sell to America’s angry, confused, polarized masses.
Mind you, the fact that a company might speak out about anything beyond how tasty its beer is, or how its shoe makes you run faster, is itself a very modern notion. After all, companies exist to sell products, not start political movements. When Maytag began to market dishwashers in the early 20th century, they talked about how great the machine was, not about helping liberate women from hours of domestic chores.
That approach was the status quo for decades. But over time, companies realized that in a competitive world of many high-quality products, just showing consumers a picture of a dishwasher and saying it worked well wasn’t sufficient to move product. In order to stand out, companies began to appeal to us by suggesting what their particular beer or washing machine said about us and our place in the world. That you were a high-net worth individual who appreciated the finer things in life, like analog Swiss watches. That you were a woman who was the master of all things domestic, which was why you should use this brand of paper towels. Like Don Draper and the other Mad Men, they were selling feelings to sell products.
In more recent years, companies have taken this approach a step further, looking to communicate their own corporate values to the consumer. This is all about bringing the company closer to us — to show that they (ahem, a faceless corporation) value the same things we do, giving us all kinds of warm and fuzzy feelings as we gaze upon a cereal box at the grocery store, contemplate which brand of body lotion to buy, or consider whether we should be using Uber versus Lyft.
Companies awoke to the obvious, if temporarily obscured truth, that they were bound to piss someone off if they tried to make a statement.
In its most suspect manifestation, we see companies like Chevron telling us they care about the environment after causing massive oil spills. In its more sincere (if still sometimes problematic) forms, it’s Toms giving away a pair of shoes to underprivileged children with every purchase, or Google putting a pro-gay rights doodle on its homepage during the Sochi Olympics. (Full disclosure: I worked at Google for 10 years, eventually leading their PR team, and was there when that doodle ran.)
Most of the time, the message falls somewhere between inspirational and self-serving — like Dove telling us that women of all shapes and sizes are beautiful (while hoping we’ll still buy its body lotion and deodorant to feel more beautiful). Or Procter & Gamble recognizing the hard work of moms — who are the main purchasers of their products.
But over the past 18 months, we have seen a complete about-face in the public expression of corporate values. Following the 2016 election, many companies rallied to speak out against some of the darkest tropes of the Trump campaign. In January of 2017, the CEOs of several companies — most notably in the tech space, but also Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and other consumer brands — put out statements decrying Trump’s travel ban on people from Muslim countries. A few weeks later, fashion brands donated proceeds to support the Women’s March on Washington.
Even the Super Bowl — the greatest embodiment of status-quo capitalism — got in on the act. The 2017 Super Bowl commercials — quite expensive, at around $5 million for 30 seconds — had a familiar cast of characters: car companies, consumer goods, and telcos, all touted by celebrities and talking animals. But in 2017, they suddenly weren’t just doing light comedic bits that your dad might repeat at dinner. Instead, Budweiser took us back to their founder’s origin story to remind us that we are all immigrants. Airbnb told us that (unlike some presidents, ahem), they believed in accepting everyone. Coca-Cola had a multilingual rendition of “America the Beautiful.” And Audi’s #DriveProgress ad was all about confronting sexism and pay inequality.
Vive la resistance!
But then Budweiser faced a boycott from consumers who thought its ad was too pro-immigration. A few months later, Walmart was on the receiving end of similar complaints after its CEO criticized Trump’s handling of the Charlottesville protests that ended in an activist’s death.
And then came the infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad.
For those who were busy with more intellectual pursuits, in April of 2017, Pepsi released an ad in which Kendall Jenner joins a crowd to protest…something. (What they are protesting exactly is never clear. People carry peace signs and there is a dude with a cello and a photographer who is very frustrated with her prints). Things get super tense (the cellist is sweating!) until lovely Kendall pulls out a Pepsi and hands it over to a cop. The cop takes a sip, the world holds its breath, and then he smiles. Racism be gone! Peace in the Middle East! No more blue versus white dress disputes on the internet!
The backlash was immediate. Accused of trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement, Pepsi pulled the ad and a chill descended on the marketing industry.
Suddenly, it was as if companies awoke to the obvious, if temporarily obscured, truth that they were bound to piss someone off if they tried to make a statement related to the current political climate. Pepsi’s commercial might have been particularly ham-fisted, but marketers everywhere seemed to derive a much broader lesson from the backlash: why align yourself with only 50 percent of the population when the other 50 percent also has purchasing power?
Fast forward to the 2018 Super Bowl, and there wasn’t anything quite like the Budweiser or Airbnb ads of the previous year. The tech companies, so famous for their mission statements and bold moral stands, were either nonexistent or simply touting their products to the tune of upbeat music and celebrity endorsements. Audi didn’t show up to #DriveProgress; instead Jeff Goldblum and a dinosaur were in a Jeep, and Steven Tyler got younger while riding in a Kia. Across the board, the ads were generally bland, inoffensive, and unmemorable.
As I write this, we are coming off the longest government shutdown ever recorded, with both sides of the aisle blaming the other for depriving the American people of government services and keeping paychecks from thousands of government workers. The Super Bowl is just days away. Might we see a Toyota ad in which a Prius smashes through a brick (or, um, steel) wall? Could a bunch of blue Pepsi cans hop over the heads of Coke cans and waddle into the House of Representatives? Or maybe Zuck could interrupt a protest to hand a regulator a can of La Croix filled with someone’s personal data?
Probably not. With the exception of a Nike ad this past September in support of Colin Kaepernick and the “take a knee” movement, and a Gillette ad earlier this month asking men to do better in the wake of #MeToo, the ad industry’s gone right back to the 1950s: show your product and say little else that matters.
Sticking your neck out is a risk. But it also distinguishes you from the rest of the pack.
Gillette has already seen backlash on Twitter, with the now-familiar criticisms that companies shouldn’t wade into politics. They should sell soap, not get on a soapbox, railed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
With that in mind, it’s likely few if any companies will want to risk making political statements this Super Bowl season. At best, we’ll see something like what Coca-Cola has just previewed for the pre-game show — a bunch of cartoon characters of different shades (and animals, gotta have animals!) drinking Coke. That people even call something so innocuous a celebration of diversity and inclusion—versus simply marketing to all of one’s customers—shows how brands are shying away from any strong statement of values.
But let me make the counter argument.
It is particularly during times of strife, particularly when consumer trust of companies is low, that brands should take a stand. As consumers, we are paying even more attention right now to what companies are saying. We’re scrutinizing them, yes, but we’re also looking for something to believe in. Instead, we are fed bromides, dinosaurs chasing Jeeps, and so many, many men buying, building, and achieving things.
Cynicism is a result of repeated disappointment. As consumers, we’ve grown wary of many of the companies that we once loved because they seem to have diverted from what they promised us, or just as bad, no longer seem clear on what their values are. (This explains why the tech companies — once our darlings — disappoint us so often, and so much more than industries for which we’ve never felt much affection, like finance.)
This isn’t just punditry. According to a 2018 report, by global comms agency Weber Shandwick, 77 percent of consumers believe that CEOs should speak out when their company’s values are threatened; 46 percent say they would be more likely to buy from a company whose CEO speaks out on an issue they agree with; only 10 percent said they would be less likely to buy. Meaning, yes there are Twitter boycotts, but their impact likely isn’t as great as the noise that surrounds them.
The older I get and the longer I work, the more I realize it’s silly to think that companies are apolitical. How you treat your employees and the transparency with which you run your business; your attitudes towards inclusion and the diversity of your staff; the gap you allow in salary between your topmost executives and your lowest-level employees — what are these if not reflections of values? And what are values if not also a political stance — a statement of how you think the world should work?
I’d much rather see big companies take a stand and tell us what they actually believe in, rather than hide until we enter a gentler age of politics. Sticking your neck out is a risk. But it also distinguishes you from the rest of the pack. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what advertising is all about?
If that’s not enough to convince marketers, let’s allow the numbers to do the talking. Many companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average were down in 2018. One notable exception? Nike — one of the few large companies to take a stand in 2018.