When Politics Polarize, Must our Marketing?

When Politics Polarize, Must our Marketing?

On Saturday, February 11th, 2017 I found myself overcome by laughter. There I was, huddled with my roommates around our TV screen in our little Brooklyn apartment. Amongst the four of us, there was not a single dry eye—from laughing. Don’t get me wrong, we just as well might have been crying tears of sadness. I mean, we are in fact watching democracy as we know it kick the bucket. However, Saturday Night Live had us laughing—and laughing hard. As we watched SNL’s parody of the 2017 SuperBowl commercials—advertisers pitching commercials for Cheetos by means of conflating unrelating topical issues (immigration and transgender rights just to name a couple), with Cheetos, the absurdity of our current political climate and its effects on the marketing industry mounted in what can only be described as a communal laugh-cry-fest. SNL hit the nail right on the head.

Political or not political, that is the question

But let’s rewind to the previous Sunday: The 2017 SuperBowl. Specifically, Budweiser’s ad for the SuperBowl entitled “Born the Hard Way.” The minute-long commercial follows a white, male immigrant on his journey from Germany to the US. (It’s worth mentioning that when covering the issue of immigration, especially in the Trump era, using a white male as a protagonist is the safest, least-controversial way to approach the topic—but I digress.) Although the commercial is certainly meant to position Budweiser as an underdog brand founded by immigrants, Budweiser’s VP of marketing, Ricardo Marques, claims the ad isn’t meant to be a political statement.

Polarization effects marketing too

Trump has altered American culture in many ways, but perhaps the most noticeable way is his escalation of political polarization in everyday life. Simply put, his campaign and administration thus far has made the right go more right, and the left go more left. What this means for marketers: whether a marketing campaign is meant to be political or not, if it has any political undertones, whether they be leaning right or left, it will most likely be interpreted as a political stance. If a marketing campaign isn’t overtly anti-immigrant, it will likely be perceived as pro-immigrant—which, due to controversy surrounding Trump’s immigration executive order and the subsequent dispute over his Muslim Ban, positions the brand as anti-Trump. We can only assume that a mega-brand like Budweiser knew exactly what it was doing in terms of entering the politically-charged immigration conversation. Was it an attempt to position itself as a younger, more liberal brand? Perhaps.

A new era of political marketing

Budweiser is hardly the only brand adopting politics as a marketing tool. Coca-Cola recently revived one of its ads from the 2014 SuperBowl in which a diverse throng of people sing a multilingual version of “America the Beautiful”. Sapna Maheshwari wrote in the New York Times that although the commercial isn’t new, “it struck an entirely different chord with viewers given the national conversation around immigration and diversity.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/05/business/media/commercials-super-bowl-51.html?_r=0). Maheshwari goes on to note the political nature of Airbnb’s SuperBowl commercial, writing that “Airbnb bought a last-minute spot that came together in a matter of days showing people of different backgrounds, set to music, with text that read: ‘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.” If Budweiser’s immigration ad was covert, then Airbnb’s ad is a prime example of taking an overt political stance, specifically in defiance of the current administration. This Airbnb ad takes a positive stance on LGBT rights (who you love), religious tolerance—the opposite of Trump’s prominent Islamophobic agenda (who you worship), and immigration (where you’re from). And unlike Budweiser’s executives who claimed their commercial wasn’t meant to be political, Brian Chesky, co-founder and chief executive of Airbnb, proudly declared his brand’s political viewpoint on Trump’s anti-refugee agenda, stating that Airbnb has a plan to, “provide short term housing over the next five years for 100,000 people in need.”

Dare to take a stance

So what does this all mean? Well, to start it means that whether a brand intends it or not, any noticeable stance on heated political issues, whether they be covert or overt, will be interpreted by the American people as concretely political. And, it should be noted, the largest, most successful brands seem to be taking particularly liberal, anti-Trump stances. Perhaps the takeaway from the 2017 SuperBowl marketing strategies is this: Whether you’d like it to be or not, America is, without a doubt, a politically polarized place. The Trump-era will only be as lucrative as you make it—the brands that take a strong stance and stand by it will be the brands that will capitalize on the political polarization. The choice is yours.