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  • Writer's pictureKate Talbot

The Good and the Bad of Activism Advertising

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

Looking back at advertising in the past 50 years, geopolitical events have had an incredible effect on purchasing decisions and content creation. With gender and racial equality taking center stage in the media and politics, it’s inevitable that advertising would follow suit.

This is most apparent in the 21st century with how women’s portrayal in advertising has shifted from a subservient and sexual role to one where they’re on equal footing with men as, feminism has become more commonplace. Additionally, in a post-9/11 world, American values have taken center stage in commercials and on billboards. In the era of Trump, this is no exception.

People are hungry for content that affirms their morals and beliefs, and brands are expected to take a stand. With racism, sexism, and exclusionary politics at the forefront of the national discourse, many companies have integrated these issues into their advertising strategies. How successful they have been in executing and promoting their perspective has been mixed, giving companies just stepping into the social fray many case studies to learn from.

Here are three value-based commercials that have had mixed reactions from the public.

Nike Takes a Stand in Support of a Kneel

Starting in 2016, Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, spurred a national discussion on racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. Many important figures commented, including former President Obama, President Trump, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Kaepernick even exclaimed when he first kneeled, “If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” This is exactly what happened.

Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March 2017 and in September 2018, Nike released its “believe in something” commercial with Kaepernick narrating. Nike has a history of promoting topical issues in its commercials. Its “Just Do It” campaign is 30 years old now and has featured a range of people, from HIV-positive marathoner, Ric Munoz, to Shaquem Griffin, a one-handed NFL linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks. Just as those did, this ad elicited a strong response across the web, including from President Trump.

The #BurnYourNikes movement took off amongst the right wing, however, the outrage didn’t have enough substance to have an impact (especially since you had to have purchased Nike merchandise to burn it). While Nike’s stock value dipped briefly following the commercial’s release, it quickly recovered, and according to analysis by research firm Edison Trends, sales surged 31% the week the ad was released—likely aided in some part by those who had to purchase Nike gear in order to burn it.

By aligning with Kaepernick, Nike was able to continue its advertising strategy of taking a stand against exclusion and being a forward-thinking company.

Pepsi Fails to Deliver Peace

In the epic fail column comes the Pepsi commercial that used Kendall Jenner to bring peace with Pepsi. Among many protests and marches that have come to light in recent years for sexism and racism, Pepsi leveraged this activism to make the point that by bringing a Pepsi to a police officer, all would be fine.

Obviously, this did not go over well, especially with the parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement, and Pepsi had to issue a statement right away:

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

The ad was such a miss that Saturday Night Live spoofed it and even to this day if you search Pepsi and Kendall Jenner on Twitter, you’ll still find results of people knocking the ad with numerous comments and memes.

Pepsi’s brand sentiment took a huge hit, as it seemed the only thing that unified the world was dislike for the commercial itself. From this incident, Pepsi will need to make better advertising choices to retain their customer base, especially in this values-driven culture.

Gillette Faces a Toxic Masculinity Backlash

Another backlash occurred after razor company Gillette ran “The Best a Man Can Get,” a commercial addressing the #metoo movement and toxic masculinity. This ad only aired one time online as a way to ignite conversations. Consequently, many men boycotted the brand, dumping their razors.

Analogous to Nike, the brand team took into account the inevitable backlash. However, since the message was meant for millennials and Gen Z, they took the chance. A spokesperson told NPR, “No longer can companies just advertise product benefits. These days, ‘brand-building’ also means taking a stand on important societal issues, controversial as they may be.”

Gillette, which is part of Proctor & Gamble, has gone on record saying they are satisfied with the campaign for brand awareness and sales, especially since subscriptions for their millennial-focused Gillette Shaving Club have grown.

Sticking with a “woke” business strategy, Gillette was able to create an online-only ad that was targeted towards a conversation that would drum up action.

With a contentious atmosphere permeating our digital-first world, advertising must address issues affecting consumers. However, companies will need to make smart decisions on how to properly execute, as a bad ad can quickly become the latest punching bag online and off. It will be interesting to see the future of advertising alongside the political climate and how these messages will affect consumer perception and in turn, market share.

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