Back in the old days—that is, before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the president at the bottom of an escalator—there was room in advertising for nuance.
Companies lived in a safe place where they could tow the center line. Taking risks was largely verboten for large consumer brands. An advertising message that was found to be moderately objectionable to anyone would never see the light of day. Ad agency staff would quietly (or not so quietly) complain that such safe advertising wouldn’t get the brand any attention. Safe primetime television programming gave way to safe 30-second ads. They didn’t have to do much to get a little attention.
Things are different now since the president’s announcement. They are much louder. The news is at a constant fever pitch, and the media at large would have us all believe that everyone in the country—and perhaps the world—is choosing sides.
I’m not certain that’s true everywhere, but it is definitely so on cable news. Political conversations have certainly become more heated. It is difficult to contain a discussion on any topic from spiraling into a sprawling battle royale about political parties and history.
Then we cut to the ads. After nine minutes of bold pronouncements and reactions to bold pronouncements by the president, the ads are invisible. Why? Because they’re still playing in nuance. Quietly. Most national and global brands have been hesitant to choose one audience at the risk of alienating another audience.
As long as I can remember, I’ve heard comedians say they wish you could tell what a politician really thinks. Now we know exactly what some are thinking, and that genie isn’t going back in the bottle. No longer afraid to offend middle ground voters, and even emboldened by it, politicians are going full Bulworth.
President Trump is loud. He’s aggressive. He’s outspoken. He is the opposite of the public persona of just about every consumer company’s CEO—which is, therefore, opposite of most brands. Bold in Pantone swatches, but more muted in execution.
The stakes have been raised, along with the volume. Look at Nike. For better or worse, the name alone now conjures sides of a heated debate. Ad agencies have said for decades that they want to ignite the passion of their clients’ customers, get them to join the conversation. Mission accomplished. But really, is this good for the brand?
Where do Toyota, Pizza Hut and State Farm stand on the country’s most polarizing issues? If I worked on those brands, I’d want to know how such a stance would affect sales. Even something misconstrued as a signal of support for one side or the other will send Twitter into boycott mode. Why do they need to say anything either way? It’s not the role of a brand or a company to take a position on these issues. Right?
What Nike did is consistent with its brand. It led. It got ahead of the issue by choosing a side proactively and not being pulled in, which would have been inevitable. Papa John’s waited until it was in a full-blown PR crisis to pronounce a stance on former CEO John Schnatter, and it’s been buried in negative press since. Its brand is now a series of headlines and counter-headlines about their internal strife.
When a host on a cable news channel says something upsetting or offensive, the first move of the viewers (and sometimes the non-viewers) is to campaign to the show’s advertisers. Threaten them with a boycott. Let’s assume brands will continue playing it safe and avoiding third-rail topics. If we still believe that the medium is the message, then advertising on CNN or Fox might just mean choosing a side, even if it’s not exclusive to one or the other.
If the media won’t pull a company into the fray, their competitors likely will. Nike’s campaign put Under Armour and adidas in a curious spot. Neither brand had done anything wrong or suggestive of an opposing stance. In fact, Under Armour had already come out in support of NFL players protesting by kneeling. Coming out publicly at all is bold, considering a majority (54 percent) of U.S. voters said they felt kneeling protests by athletes are not appropriate. But by not acting in their advertising, they became somehow complicit. Brands can’t hide anymore, and the brands that speak to their specific customers will win, even if it means ruling out others.