Months before Pepsi’s perfect storm of cultural controversy, 2016 laid waste to the myth that advertising is an inherently apolitical business.
President Donald Trump inspires strong opinions like he attracts Twitter followers—and in the months leading up to last year’s election, the American ad industry appeared to achieve a rare moment of consensus in opposition to his candidacy.
Agencies including Droga5, Venables Bell & Partners, Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Burrell Communications created pro-bono ads for the Hillary Clinton campaign, and brands like Tecate and Corona released big-budget spots playing off Trump’s signature promise to “Build the Wall” before 84 Lumber became the talk of Super Bowl LI.
But the most colorful political work of 2016 and early 2017 came when creatives’ personal passions bubbled over into explicitly anti-Trump projects.
Many of advertising’s biggest names weighed in, with Wieden + Kennedy creating a Portland, Ore., food truck selling only “Donald Trump’s BS” and Goodby Silverstein & Partners releasing a “personalized anti-Trump ad generator.” Abundant side projects ranged from a well-meaning #UnfollowTrump plea to a series of ominous bus signs regarding his potential presidency.
Trump won the election despite this wellspring of resistance, and many agencies now walk a fine line between channeling employees’ convictions and helping nervous clients avoid the pitfalls of an era covered in eggshells.
“We have not actively organized in support or denial of any political party or candidate,” said 72andSunny founder and creative co-chairman Glenn Cole. “We are not a partisan company; we are a purpose company.”
Yet the agency is also an activist company that encourages employees to “use our internal channels to get more support for their points of view.”
Cole mentioned recent projects like #First100Ways, a campaign from strategist Eddie Moraga and senior brand manager Rachel Brandt that helps followers find ways to affect “positive, collective change” during the opening months of the administration. Director of brand innovation Kelly Schoeffel’s protest sign generator The Uproar and designer Mindy Benner’s Pussy on Protest take a more directly anti-Trump tack, with the latter donating 100 percent of profits from its “activist kits” to Planned Parenthood.
“These ideas were all hatched by folks at the company,” Cole said. “We gave them just as much attention as launches of big campaigns.”
Other prominent agencies have not been so quick to shine a spotlight on their employees’ political work.
“Our work is taken as political, but it’s more about humanity,” argued Droga5 group creative director Kevin Brady, leader of the agency’s controversial “This Is Wholesome” Honey Maid same-sex parents campaign and its efforts to help elect Clinton. Brady, who attended the January Women’s March on Washington (alongside a bus filled with Huge staffers), said employees were “lining up” to work on the Clinton ads. But he also said that any input from Trump voters “would be welcome.”
“As an agency, I want to be respectful of people across the spectrum,” Brady added. “There are a hell of a lot of passionate political people here, and that engine won’t stop.”
In one such example, Droga5 group creative director Karen Land Short and freelance art director Michelle Hirschberg created a series of T-shirts under the “Not This White Woman” banner after various reports noted that a majority of white, female voters picked Trump over Clinton.
Cole and Brady take pride in their agencies’ lack of explicit partisanship, but others are less concerned about making their personal politics public.
“A long time ago we picked a side, and we’re sticking with it,” said SS+K founding partner Rob Shepardson, a veteran of Barack Obama’s campaigns who calls his political backstory a key selling point for clients despite the fact that “the commercial world leans right.”
Shepardson doesn’t shy away from politically charged work like the “BFF Trump” chatbot or his current passion project, a documentary about former Obama supporters who defected to Trump in 2016.
On that note, the ad industry is hardly a monochromatic sea of “blue” voters, and several executives interviewed for this article spoke of conservative employees expressing discomfort with office politics.
Some prominent Trump critics like Jeff Goodby have adopted a “wait and see” approach to a still-green administration. “All the pre-election stuff is on hold for now. I will try to have a longer fuse, but the fuse will still be there,” said the “Got Milk?” veteran, who has created #Resist posters in his free time while carefully following all major political news.
Others think the atmosphere calls for activism. “As a nation we are more divided than ever. Whether it’s true or not, it’s the undeniable perception,” said AnalogFolk partner and creative director Carren O’Keefe, whose agency used images from the Women’s March for a recent Clif Bar campaign. “Don’t temper your voice. Don’t temper your beliefs. Don’t temper your ideas. Now’s the time to be as loud as hell.”
Many share her opinion that the industry’s political revival is only beginning. As SS+K’s Shepardson put it, “I still think we’re in the first inning here.”