Selling social movements: 5 brands using politics in their ad campaigns — for better and for worse

Key Points
  • 57 percent of consumers will buy or boycott a brand because of its position on an issue, according to Edelman's Earned Brand Study.
  • 65 percent of belief-driven buyers (half of consumers worldwide) will not buy a brand when it chooses to stay silent on an issue they feel it has an obligation to address.
  • Edelman's Mark Renshaw tells brands that, in 2017, companies that fail to take a stand risk ending up in 'No Brand's Land.'
Kendall Jenner stars in the new Pepsi Moments ad.
Source: Pepsi Global

Since the election, more and more companies have violated the business norm of remaining apolitical. By using social movements in their marketing campaigns, companies are making political statements to appeal to customers and sell their products.

"Nowadays, brands are a way for us to express our values and commitments," says Jonathan Copulsky, a former chief marketing officer for Deloitte Consulting and author of Brand Resilience. "We don't just choose a brand because of its quality anymore."

But it has to be done with the right touch, or the message will fall flat — or worse.

Fifty-seven percent of consumers will buy or boycott a brand because of its position on an issue, according to Edelman's Earned Brand Study.

That research suggests that half of all consumers worldwide are "belief-driven buyers" who shop with a conscience. About 65 percent of that group won't buy a brand when it stays silent on an issue the consumer feels the brand has an obligation to address.

"The current political atmosphere and system is failing people," says Mark Renshaw, global head of Edelman's brand practice. "People have less of a trust in government, nonprofits, and media. They're turning to brands as another way to navigate change and make them feel like they can make a difference."

In this climate, companies that fail to take a stand risk ending up in "No Brand's Land," Renshaw said. "Brands that live their beliefs in all that they do, and invite consumers to take action with them, will be rewarded with more conversation, more conversion, and ultimately, more commitment."

But it's not an easy path to navigate. When does it work and when does it flop?

Networked Insights, a research firm that uses artificial intelligence and social media to gauge responses, was able to determine the amount of positive and negative reactions recent ads received through online mentions within two weeks of their respective release dates. Here is what the data, along with some experts, had to say:

Procter & Gamble's 'The Talk'

Launched a few weeks ago, Procter & Gamble's "The Talk" campaign features an ad that spotlights different conversations between black parents and their children on racial bias. At the end, P&G calls for the audience to #TalkAboutBias.

According to Networked Insights, the ad received over 26,000 mentions online, 29 percent of which held positive sentiments, 20 percent negative, and the remaining neutral.

Three factors determine success for this type of marketing, says Copulsky: authenticity, a brand's commitment to the issue, and transparency.

Copulsky said he expects that because this ad was part of an initiative started over a decade ago by black women at P&G, it showed both authentic and sustained interest, and that helped the ad to be received more positively by audiences.

Audi's 'Daughter'

Audi's pro gender equality commercial that first aired during the 2017 Super Bowl has since received several mixed reviews. The ad, narrated by a father disheartened by the gender inequalities his daughter will face, shows scenes of the daughter beating her male opponents at a local cart race.

The commercial received rave reviews from Vogue and other popular sites but also garnered 17,000 more thumbs down than it did thumbs up on YouTube. Networked Insights found 25 percent of the reactions to this ad to have held positive sentiments and 7 percent had negative sentiments out of 189,135 mentions.

"A lack of authenticity," is what hurt this ad, says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist. She goes on to say that "the fact that Audi's board does not have a single female member made people question Audi's commitment to equality and wonder whether the company was simply exploiting the equal rights movement for their own benefit."

In the end, the ad did spark conversation about equal rights but "it happened to backfire since the conversation turned to Audi's own responsibilities and actions in the realm of gender equality."

Vicks' 'Touch of Care'

In April, the P&G brand put out a commercial showcasing the true story of Gayatri, a young Indian orphan who is taken in by Gauri Sawant, a single, transgender woman living in India. The ad ends with the tagline "everyone deserves the touch of care."

According to Networked Insights, this ad received 12 percent positive reactions and 6 percent negative reactions out of 3,330 mentions in a two-week span from the release date. There were some who accused the company of exploiting the LGTBQ equal rights movement, but the ad was also met with supportive tweets and shares from consumers, who used the hashtag #TouchofCare. The ad also received over 12,700 thumbs up on YouTube and fewer than 300 thumbs down.

"The ad was able to create an unconscious shift of feelings toward the already well-known brand," Yarrow said. "The use of a real story elicited emotions that the consumer will now associate with the product. It succeeded because it felt authentic and had a message greater than just selling a product."

Apple's 'Earth — Shot on iPhone'

Apple's latest iPhone commercial, narrated by Carl Sagan, features various clips of nature all shot on iPhones. The ad calls the viewer to "preserve and cherish the only home we've ever known."

The ad received 18 percent positive mentions and only 5 percent negative mentions out of a total of 872,933, as reported by Networked Insights.

"Putting Carl Sagan in the equation and using real images shot by iPhone users gives the ad authenticity and counters any dings Apple may have with their environmental record," says Yarrow. "It showcases the iPhone's abilities while making a call to action."

Yarrow also noted that Apple's release of an "Environmental Responsibility Report," covering the 2016 fiscal year, shows consumers Apple's commitment and transparency toward the cause.

PepsiCo's 'Live for Now Moments Anthem'

PepsiCo's protest-themed commercial, featuring Kendall Jenner, received immense amounts of backlash and was pulled from the air almost immediately after debuting. The ad never made clear exactly what was being protested, but displayed diverse groups of people marching the streets with a peaceful agreement made when Jenner hands a police officer a can of Pepsi.

Networked Insights found that only 8 percent of the 737,708 mentions of this ad held positive sentiments, while 21 percent of them held negative ones. The analytics company also credits a large amount of the positive reactions to the ad to be from Pepsi expressing regret or from a loyal Kardashian-Jenner fan base.

According to Copulsky, the ad backfired because "it used the idea of protest to sell its product. It was insensitive and looked stupid." That said, Copulsky doesn't think the ad created much lasting damage for Pepsi, but agrees "audiences received the insincerity found in the ad negatively."