Brands Want Celebrity Spokespeople to Be Political Now

Why the industry has decided to get off the sidelines

From Michael Jordan's “Republicans buy sneakers, too” to Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem.

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Typically, when brands hire a famous actor, musician or athlete to help sell insurance or tampons, the idea is to select an individual with widespread appeal.

At least, that’s how it used to be.

Experts in the business of matching brands with celebrities and influencers say this strategy is shifting—and fast. After years of divisive politics under the Trump administration, the looming threat of climate change, Black Lives Matter protests and an election year that grows more contentious by the tweet, companies are beginning to align themselves with spokespeople openly dedicated to a cause.

“The tide is changing,” said Marc Ippolito, president of celebrity marketing agency Burns Entertainment.

‘Republicans buy sneakers too’

Currently in its 50th year of business, Burns Entertainment has coordinated plenty of celebrity-driven campaigns, including Joe Montana for Hanes, Jamie Lee Curtis for Activia and Brie Larson for Nissan. In the past, many brands would avoid partnering with celebrities who took sides in cultural debates, such as gender inequality or income disparity, due to fear of backlash, explained Ippolito. But now, brands are revisioning this potential liability as a possible asset. 

Just consider the leap from Michael Jordan, who quipped in 1990 that “Republicans buy sneakers, too” in defense of staying away from politics, to Colin Kaepernick, who in 2018 tweeted, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Both men were sponsored by Nike at the time of their statements.

“Starting in the past couple months, our clients are more actively seeking celebs who are not only open about their views, but actively participating in the movements that they’re passionate about,” said Chris Simmons, director of celebrity and influencer operations at The Marketing Arm. “We’ve been asked to find talent who have supported Black Lives Matter, social [and] criminal justice reform, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ pride, because the talent helps to amplify the brand’s values and stances on these issues.”

And, as various polls and ongoing outcries on social media show, modern shoppers want brands to get off the sidelines and get involved in current issues, such as sustainability and racism. That means vetting celebrity and influencer partners is more important than ever to make sure that the partner’s viewpoints align with the brand’s.

“If you have a celebrity spokesperson and they have a viewpoint, it is automatically going to be seen as the viewpoint of the brand,” said Stacy Jones, CEO of Hollywood Branded, an entertainment and influencer marketing firm.

It works the other way, too: Celebrities and influencers are looking into brands.

“Influencers are asking the same questions of brands as well,” said Mae Karwowski, CEO at influencer marketing agency Obviously. “What are their stances on sustainability? What are they doing to foster diversity and inclusion within their own companies? They have loyal, personal followings and need to know that they’re spreading messaging and values that align with their own beliefs.”

A risk for both sides

This transfer of identity between the two parties can also be for the worse—for either the brand or the endorser. If a celebrity spokesperson says or does something contrary to the values a brand purports to uphold, the brand’s reputation can take a hit.

Kaila is an intern for Adweek in the Brand Marketing Department, and covers news in brand marketing and retail. She is a rising senior at Villanova University pursuing a degree in PR & Advertising and Journalism.
@hiebertpaul Paul Hiebert is a CPG reporter at Adweek, where he focuses on data-driven stories that help illustrate changes in consumer behavior and sentiment.