Why Brands Lost Their Fear of Controversy and Got Political in 2017

Corporate America took a stand against President Trump's policies


It’s a longstanding truism of American business that companies don’t like to generate controversy—and there are few quicker ways to do that than taking a stance on a political issue.

The reticence is understandable. What company wants to jeopardize its stock price with bad PR? Or get hit with a boycott? And what brand wants to risk alienating one segment of its customer base in order to please another?

Plenty of research counsels prudence, too. In 2014, the Global Strategy Group released a survey that found that 56 percent of Americans believed corporations “should stand up for what they believe politically,” and that’s a big number. Even so, that left 44 percent of Americans—pretty close to half—who felt it was inappropriate for companies to take such stands. This year, a 4A’s survey found that 58 percent of consumers “dislike when brands get political.”

But looking back, it’s clear 2017 became the year that corporations shed their reservations about stepping up on the soap box. In overwhelming numbers, America’s largest and most influential brands made their positions on a range of socio-political issues clear—at times brutally so.

And while companies have taken controversial stands in years past—Walmart taking a stance on sustainability 12 years ago or Disney adding domestic-partner benefits as early as 1995—this year was clearly different in another respect: Not only did brands take highly public policy stances, but most of them took the form of active and direct opposition to the President of the United States.

How did it start, and why did it get ugly? Below, a look back.

1. Expedia’s Inauguration-Day warning

It’s hard to say if anyone saw it coming, but what would quickly become a year of companies jumping headlong into the political fray began, fittingly enough, on Inauguration Day: Jan. 20. That Friday, Expedia aired a beautiful, yet heart-wrenching spot called “The Train.” It showed a woman traveling the world, relishing in the beauty of the land and enjoying the company of locals—though gradually, also encountering the disturbing consequences of those with “narrow minds,” including soldiers at checkpoints wielding Kalashnikovs and desperate refugees packing into rafts.

Though the ad’s denouement was a positive one (the woman, having spent her life roving the world and embracing all cultures, grows into an enlightened sage), the implication was clear enough. This ad was a warning against intolerance and, moreover, its timing to inauguration day probably wasn’t a coincidence.

2. Brands converge over the travel ban

As though the Expedia people knew something others did not, a mere week after the inauguration, President Donald Trump issued the first of what would become several travel bans. Officially called the Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, the order halted the admission of all refugees and travelers from seven countries with majority-Muslim populations.

There were, no doubt, many companies that wanted nothing to do with speaking out against a man who not only has a Twitter following of 44.7 million people but was, of course, now the leader of the most powerful country on earth. But soon, caution fell away and companies went on record to condemn the order.

“I oppose excluding people from U.S. based on their nationality or religion, period,” tweeted Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson.

“Executive orders affecting worlds’ most vulnerable are un-American. Dropbox embraces people from all countries and faiths,” tweeted the company’s founder and CEO Drew Houston.

“Like many of you, I’m concerned about the impact of the recent executive orders signed by President Trump,” wrote Facebook founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg, who pointed out that his wife Priscilla’s parents arrived to the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam and China.

Other companies made their political positions clear through their sizeable corporate coffers, with Lyft pledging to donating $1 million to the ACLU and Google starting a $4 million fund to benefit four immigrants’ rights organizations.

Meanwhile, Nike CEO Mark Parker responded with a five-paragraph email to his employees, stating unequivocally that “this is a policy we don’t support” and that “Nike stands together against bigotry and any form of discrimination.”

3. Nordstrom gives Ivanka’s shoes the boot

On Feb. 2, the upscale retailer announced that it will no longer carry the clothing and shoes of Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. While many saw the decision as political, the store claimed that it based its decision solely on the poor performance of the brand.

Meanwhile, skeptics of the company line pointed out that Nordstrom had recently been targeted by Grab Your Wallet, an activist group founded in October 2016, shortly after a hot mic picked up Trump’s now-notorious “Grab ‘em by the pussy” comment, referring to his conquests of various women.

On its site, Grab Your Wallet encouraged consumers to write to Nordstrom (and other retailers) and say: “Unfortunately I can no longer do business with your company because it does business with the Trump family. If your company were to no longer do this, I would enthusiastically return as a customer. Please communicate my feedback to management.”

4. Coke and Airbnb go political at the Super Bowl

With its TV audience of 112 million, it’s a given that brands look to the Super Bowl as an opportunity to send what’s probably their most important message of the year. But 2017’s game saw two brands sidelining the usual advertising pitches in favor of socio-political messages—specifically, about the importance of diversity and inclusion.

Before the game even kicked off, Coca-Cola aired a spot picturing people of a range of ethnic persuasions and ages, set against “America the Beautiful,” sung in a variety of languages. Not to be outdone, Airbnb weighed in with a spot titled “We Accept,” which also cycled through photographs of diverse Americans over the message: “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.