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What Do Brands Owe America?

In 2021, Brands Can’t Escape Political and Social Issues

Sometime in March of 2020, when COVID-19 went from the boogeyman in the closet to a force closing schools and businesses, an interesting website popped up. Well, actually, it was a bit terrifying. As an advertising brand strategist, it was one I noticed immediately: someone was starting a collection of which brands had responded with support during COVID-19, and which hadn’t. The Scarlet Letter approach was aimed at shaming and tipping powerful hands, and also to inform people which brands they should support based off of how they supported us during these…“unprecedented times.” I was secretly glad to see its existence — not only because the brands we work with were doing things — but because it meant brands were showing up to help in a public health crisis. Similar scrutiny bloomed for brands silent on Black Lives Matter, brands whose corporate responsibility and social good flag waving seemed to be just for show.

You can bet there will be continuing expectations for brands to act on the many burgeoning and persisting issues of 2021.

But should they?

We Want Ethical and Engaged Brands

After the protests surrounding George Floyd’s murder I lobbied that we should ask our clients — and ourselves — to examine where prejudice and systemic racism exists within our industries, and start working close to home for meaningful change. The push-back from the senior ranks was swift, the logic being “it’s our job to sell things, not have opinions on this stuff.” I have no doubt this was a perspective held in many ad agencies and corporate offices. What customers want, however, are brands with opinions on bigger issues. An Edelman study found that “65% of people will not buy a brand because it stayed silent on an issue it had an obligation to access.” It’s part of the reason Nike took a knee with Kaepernick. For better or worse, customers today demand a response from purveyors of shampoo and soda on everything from police brutality to censorship and hate speech.

How Brands Got Involved in Politics & Social Issues

In 2009, The Great Recession had very recently ended and people were upset at the poor corporate governance, and lack of accountability, that led to many losing their jobs, homes and livelihoods. The bailouts were critically unpopular, and people felt banks and auto companies owed them something. People — Millennial people, especially — started demanding that corporations have more responsibly to society. I vividly remember the buzzword accountability littered in Powerpoint and trend forecasts throughout 2011. Accountability was new for brands in a societal and political sphere; Corporate Personhood — the idea that companies have the same political and voting rights as you and me — had been allowing corporations and brands to influence our lives beyond marketing since 1880, but the issues they weighed in on tended to be in their financial interest, not our societal good.

Another factor that has led to our increased interest in a brand’s political and social stances is social media. Fictional brand mascots have become semi-sentient, trading Tweets with customers. KFC’s mascot became 3-dimensional as a virtual influencer, and you can talk to the bubbly brand mascots like Flo via chatbot. They aren’t flat brands anymore, they are pseudo-persons, imbued with opinions and perspectives. The result has been astounding; in 2019 Deloitte reported that 62% of customers today feel like they have a relationship with a brand. A brand is a lifestyle signifier, whether it’s a Gucci bag or John Deere hat. And in these divided times, we want to know if the brands we support have the same opinions and perspectives that we do. Or else, like your political aunt Mary, it’s unfriending time.

Brand Boycotts & Voting With Dollars

In addition to our shifting personal relationships and expectations of brands, we’ve given brands more political power simply because we trust the people who want our money more than the ones that want our vote. We know what they’re both after, but at least with corporations there’s no pretense. The Edelman Trust Barometer found that the general public trust businesses more than they trust their government, or the media and press. Increasingly, as we feel like over elected government servants and unbiased reporters have failed us, we turn to our popular rich friends for sway. We vote in the most American way we can think: with our dollars. We have taken a greater interest in how accountable brands spend “our” money as their paying customers. The result is a changed dynamic between brands and political and social issues, one where we pay for them to represent us and the issues we care about.

Case in point, brands boycotted hate speech by pulling their advertising budget on Facebook’s platforms — which generated $70B in ad revenue for the giant last year. Ben & Jerry’s is taking out ads calling for defunding the police. Goya is being boycotted, or purchased, depending on your views on Trump (or if you are Trump). All around brands have gone from fearful in the political wings, afraid that their support would alienate dollar-wielding consumers, to taking highly-public moral stances on behalf of us, their customers. It’s what we want, after all, and the customer is always right.

The whole thing leaves me conflicted.

The Perils of Brand Representation

In some ways, I am heartened to see companies positively use their power and privilege, to see them recognize an obligation to the people who give them their fortunes. Corporations and their brands have more influence, money and clout to pull important issues from obscurity, and therefore, have more duty to do it. For example in 2018, when Patagonia brought to the public’s attention through their campaign “The President Stole Your Land,” that the government was quietly reducing national monuments by nearly 2 million acres. You can bet Patagonia got more eyeballs on the issue than crunchy granola activists alone could.

In another respect, I’m troubled for the exact same reason. I don’t want wealthy brands influencing politics more than they already do. Massive corporations and lobbyist don’t need any more help. I don’t want us to hand over our trust, and outsource our political activism, to entities that exist solely for profit. I worry about our governance being (further) shifted into a game of pay-to-play, where we express our beliefs not through discourse and voting Yes or No, but by purchase or boycott. It is a system that will not represent the poor.

It’s also a system that is incredibly influenced by PR headlines and persuasive ad campaigns — not facts and reason. Propaganda are ads that influence society and politics for a certain goal. Sometimes the goal is noble, like what we’re seeing now…but they don’t have to be. There is little to stop a beloved brand from running a glossy ad campaign to convince us that what is in their best interests is also in ours, even if that is the furthest thing from the truth. It would be a dangerous mistake for us to trust those who exist to please their shareholders and fulfill their corporate interests as representing us, their consumers, as “constituents.”

As I watch the world of civil and political unrest unfold, I am no closer to determining just what level of moral obligation brands owe society. As a consumer, I am glad to see brand’s immense influence and dollars to advance issues like equality and justice. As an advertiser, I want brands to be held to a higher moral standard. We talk about our brands values like they are abstract words on a brand architecture — never to be tested and upheld like real values. That won’t fly in 2020 and beyond.

If America is going to continue to buy into this level of political involvement from brands, though, perhaps we should remember: caveat emptor.



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Jess Watts

Where culture & consumerism meet. Advertising Strategy Director, Business Insider’s Rising Stars of Madison Ave | Stalk me here: