Creatives Are Still Cautious in the Age of Trump, but Is a Renaissance Coming?

Marketers, focused on not upsetting anyone, aren't exciting anyone either

Goodby Silverstein & Partners created an ad before the election warning voters of the consequences of electing Trump.
Goodby Silverstein & Partners

As the 2016 presidential campaign churned forward, there was a distinct sense of bemusement about Donald Trump in the traditionally liberal-leaning advertising industry. Surely he wouldn’t ascend to the Oval Office, right?

Just to be sure, creative teams spent countless hours of unpaid time creating work that mocked, riffed on or raised cautionary flags about his campaign.

Canadian agency Critical Mass created a step-by-step guide to help Americans move north of the border. BarrettSF created miniature Trump campaign signs solely to be placed in dog poop. Wieden + Kennedy Portland’s food cart served “Donald Trump’s BS” (baloney sandwiches). Such snarky projects were a weekly sight in the months leading up to the election.

Then Trump won the presidency, and the creatives who’d been nettling him stopped laughing.

In the year and a half since Trump took office, brand marketers and agency creatives have largely gone quiet. Those who have continued to make provocative, challenging work have reaped both awards and boycott threats, but overwhelmingly, some industry observers say, today’s political polarization has had a numbing effect on creativity.

“[Creativity now] is more nervous, more apologetic,” said Laura Fegley, executive creative director at Colle+McVoy. “The tribes we’ve formed in America would make you think that we would move toward highly polarized work. But instead, the work can become mild salsa—falling into the worst trap of trying to say things that offend no one and aren’t really exciting anyone.”

But much like how the political unrest of the late 1960s sparked a creative renaissance in music, art, literature and even advertising, some feel America is on the eve of a creative awakening as cultural battle lines are drawn and brands are brought to the front lines.

Marketing in a minefield

Amazon, Boeing, General Motors, Merck, Nordstrom and Toyota are just a few of the brands that have been targets for the president’s Twitter arrows. His barbs, while often creating volatility for publicly traded companies, don’t seem to have a lasting effect on share price, but his penchant for 280 characters still makes brands reluctant to be seen as taking any stance that might be seen as “political.”

Case in point: A 2017 Budweiser Super Bowl spot telling the story of its immigrant founder, Adolphus Busch, struck a nerve with some conservative consumers, who thought that it was a corporate slam of Trump’s travel ban executive order and immigration policies in general. With threats of a boycott, the brand was forced into damage control, saying the ad was never meant to be a political statement.

That was only a few weeks into Trump’s presidency, and since then, many brands have chosen to lie low and avoid politics, despite the topic’s increasingly all-encompassing role in American life.

“Some companies do not view entering the political discussion as a way to move their brand forward, so they stay the course,” noted Vann Graves, VCU Brandcenter executive director and former CCO at JWT Atlanta. “I felt similarly for a while, but it has since become clear that it is simply not possible for brands to remain on the sidelines.”

In a study from Morning Consult, consumers said they would have a more favorable view of a company if the firm supported certain key issues, with civil rights, affirmative action, gun control and LGBTQ subjects topping the list. But tellingly, the study also indicated that mentioning Trump, either positively or negatively, upsets around 70 percent of the country.

Avoiding the temptation of blandness

Brands with baked-in progressive philosophies, like Patagonia, don’t fear the backlash and, in fact, took on Trump directly in a campaign to save national parks from being carved up for private use. Airbnb and Expedia have celebrated global unity and tolerance, using high-profile ad buys to champion their beliefs.

But there have also been a few surprising voices willing to speak to lightning-rod issues like race relations and intolerance.

Procter & Gamble’s “The Talk,” a cinematic spot that shows the harsh realities that black mothers must prepare their children for—including racial profiling and violence by police—sparked national attention and international acclaim, earning the Grand Prix in Film at this year’s Cannes Lions festival.

“This is not a time to be unclear on what your point of view is [and] what side of history you choose to be on,” Marc Pritchard, P&G’s chief brand officer, said at the Cannes Lions.

Some see “The Talk” as part of an emerging trend toward work that can be provocative without being divisive.

“Marketers are leaning in on authentic, inclusive storytelling that strikes a unifying tone in polarizing times,” said Aaron Walton, co-founder of Walton Isaacson, adding his definition of unifying is not “kumbaya work that paints a rosy picture of everyone holding hands,” but empathetic creativity that shows we can agree to disagree.

The creative hangover

Aside from the relatively few exceptions above, the country’s polarization still appears to keep most brands at arm’s length from anything controversial—at a time when nearly anything, from what you do say to what you don’t say, can be controversial.

The result has been a long creative hangover. Most of the work isn’t bad. But it isn’t good. It just … is.

Looking back at the past, Colle+McVoy’s Fegley says: “Almost every year, there are like 10 things that I lose my mind that I didn’t make. With a couple of exceptions, I have a complete lack of jealousy right now.”

Meanwhile, creative icons who are getting more intense and pointed in their commentary are seeing strong results.

Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video, a brutally direct look at racism, poverty and violence, yielded not only an endless litany of think pieces but also 368 million views on YouTube.

“Artists remind us that the world we’re served up is not a world we have to accept,” said Mekanism CEO Jason Harris. “It’s a world we can take ownership of and change.”

Channeling anger into action

Optimism begets optimism, which is a message that some beleaguered creatives might not want to hear. But industry leaders say that’s the key to how creativity can help bring about legitimate change rather than just fueling cycles of rage and outrage.

“Any time there is something negative in the world, creativity starts to grow in the cracks of the pavement,” adds Danielle Trivisonno-Hawley, CCO, Americas for Possible in Seattle. “As creatives, we have a huge responsibility to tap into what we know and try to change things.”

In terms of brand marketing, that can mean being open to other ideas—while also being willing to take a stand and risk some fallout.

Walton says simply tapping into discord doesn’t necessarily equate to courage.

“Be purposeful, but don’t be arrogant,” he said. “Listen to people—all kinds of people—then listen to your brand’s heartbeat, pulse and values. And be OK with the fact that you will never be loved by everyone. And you don’t need to be.”

Jeff Goodby, co-founder of Goodby Silverstein & Partners and an unabashed liberal, said the past year and a half have taught him to listen and absorb rather than simply isolating yourself in your own beliefs.

“Everyone in the U.S. is more aware than ever of the spectrum of opinions we represent these days,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about the people around me, and I hope this chapter (in history) makes us all more careful about the way we treat each other.”

One of the founding members of the Creative Alliance—a collection of 76 companies focused on supporting the non-profit Civic Nation that advocates across education access, civic engagement, gender equality and social justice—Mekanism’s Harris admits it’s tempting to focus on the anger as opposed to harnessing it for good.

“We must approach every brief and assignment from a tone of optimism, not cynicism,” he said. “Creativity has the opportunity to move people in a positive way.”

At the moment, however, advertising and creativity aren’t necessarily moving culture in the ways they have in the past. There are pockets of breakthrough creativity—fits and starts to feel the world out a little—but according to Fegley, the creative and brand community is still peeking around a metaphorical corner to see if it’s OK to try being loud and bold.

“There’s more concern about making a misstep than hitting a home run,” noted Fegley. “We’re so afraid to fan the flames that we’re walking on eggshells. It feels like the whole country is at a Thanksgiving dinner with your family—making small talk about the weather and grandma for a couple of hours. It might be time to go for the home run again.”

This story first appeared in the August 20, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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