An election poses a unique opportunity for brands to harness media hype and employ some hijack marketing. But it’s not without its risks.
Hijack marketing is a common mechanism for brands attempting to leverage the commercial appeal of an event that is already producing publicity. But getting it right isn’t often easy, particularly when politics are involved. As the saying goes “brands and politics don’t mix”.
To make things more interesting the recent US election has held unprecedented implications for brands. The Trump Organization has faced marketing challenges unparalleled in modern American electoral history and we have witnessed the rise of consumer desire to identify not only with a brand’s products but also their politics.
Let’s take a look at the brands bold enough to willingly enter the fray – those that took no position on any political issue, those which took an explicit position on a political issue and those that sat somewhere in the middle.
In the sphere of politically adjacent marketing the vast majority of marketing efforts are humorous, generally satirising or parodying some aspect of the electoral campaign. Others merely borrow from the stylistic language of political campaigns and its place in the news, such as Hotels.com’s mascot Captain Obvious and his ‘run for office’ across a series of more than 52 short videos.
Although humour makes up the majority of apolitical advertising, there’s also a healthy genre of ads with serious or sincere messaging that very consciously shy away from political partisanship. These are, of course, the campaigns which argue that more unites us than divides, portraying their products as the connective tissue between fractured voters.
This ad showing two Jeeps in split screen, one owned by a supporter of each major party, is one of the most prominent examples from the last election, and ran during a presidential debate for maximum impact. Pedigree and Jetblue both shot partially unscripted ads, which featured non-actors finding common ground despite holding a variety of political viewpoints.
It’s clear that tone and context remain essential elements for staying out of trouble. Bisquick landed itself in hot water after pitching a Q&A session on Twitter to counterprogram the presidential debate immediately following revelations of Donald Trump’s misconduct towards women.
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Organisations interested in ‘newsjacking’ the public debate or involving themselves in potentially controversial spaces require stringent media monitoring and strong internal processes for dealing with opportunities and potential scandals when they unexpectedly arise.
Hijack Marketing No Man’s Land
One of the advantages of marketing targeted at those who are already actively engaging with the political landscape is that marketers can be confident in their audience’s ability to understand a given message in its broader context.
Take for example BBH New York’s campaign last year to promote a new season of Netflix’s popular political drama, House of Cards. Although the campaign, which consisted of an interactive webpage, video content, merchandise and an activation in North Carolina, made no explicit commentary on the political landscape it launched into nor said anything of substance about any issues, it still managed to implicitly criticise the Republican field of presidential hopefuls, by launching its campaign at the same time as the republican primary debate, prominently featuring the initials ‘F.U’.
Without this context, it would be entirely reasonable to assume the campaign’s content was intended to satirise presidential politics in general, or even Hillary Clinton specifically, given the protagonist of the ad campaign, Frank Underwood, is a democrat, not a republican. However, thanks to highly specific timing and a news-conscious audience, Netflix was able to deliver a political message without explicitly referencing the demographics it was rebuking.
Another prominent marketing effort which relied entirely on contextual knowledge was Esurance’s April Fool’s day prank turned legitimate contest ‘Election Insurance’, which plays off the decades-old gag that Americans move to Canada if their presidential candidate loses. Spotify also produced an internet spot playing on the same joke.
Through subtle use of context, campaigns such as these are clearly designed to tap into the need of younger audiences to identify with the ethics of a product, while hopefully evading the scorn of those who support whatever the ad is implicitly against.
Taking a Stand
It’s a brave brand – or one very confident in its demographic research – that is willing to actively alienate its potential customer base. Yet that’s what each of the following campaigns has risked by taking a stand on issues that, often, almost half of the US vehemently disagrees with.
Some prominent brands such as Bud Light have crafted very subtle campaigns. While Bud Light’s fake political campaign (which has since been taken down) is largely humorous and explicitly casts itself as ‘bringing America together’, the campaign does fall distinctly on the Democratic side of several prominent issues, most notably gender and identity.
Additionally, while it is also the primary colour of Bud Light’s brand, mapping the beer’s deep blue hues onto political imagery clearly associates it with the Democratic party, as do its spokes-comedians, high profile liberals Seth Rogan and Amy Schumer.
In a similar fashion, Taco Bell produced an ad (which they have since retracted) featuring well known liberal George Takei parodying Trump’s mannerism and slogans.
Indeed, the implications of the election were so wide reaching that ads attacking Trump’s policies became a cliché in Mexican advertising. From prominent beer companies to Mexico’s flagship airline Aeroméxico, brands were unafraid to proudly declare their stance on a swathe of political and social issues.
— skreetware (@milftears) November 10, 2016
Even with the election over, however, engaging with social issues remains a risky proposition for brands. New Balance faced an almost literal firestorm after a Wall Street Journal reporter quoted a spokesperson’s pro-Trump sentiments on Twitter.
Despite this risk, companies are increasingly willing not only to associate their brands with political stances, but to actively try to influence social policy development.
Earlier in the year North Carolina’s legislature passed the ‘Bathroom Bill’, a piece of legislation which would prevent people from using bathrooms other than those which correspond with the gender they were registered with at birth.
To oppose the law, PayPal publicly cancelled plans to bring 400 jobs to the state, as did Deutsche Bank. More than 200 CEOs and other executives signed a petition calling for the bathroom bill to be repealed. Several prominent artists, including Bruce Springsteen, cancelled performances in the state. The NCAA discounted the state capital Charlotte from its list of cities eligible to host the playoffs.
Time Warner’s North Carolina cable news channel estimated that the boycotts had cost the state more than 1700 jobs and $US77 million in lost business. This equates to approximately 0.1% of the state’s GDP.
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A similar law being considered before Indiana’s legislature was withdrawn after similar firms such as Yelp and Salesforce threatened to boycott the state.
Max Lenderman, CEO of agency School, testified to the effectiveness of newsjacking your brand into free publicity. “The immediate value of brands speaking out against these laws versus a brand donating $1 million to a nonprofit is huge,” Lenderman said. “It’s basically a news cycle window, so you can earn a lot more media by taking a stand in these short blips rather than taking a stand over a multiyear time period.”
With the election now behind us and Donald Trump the president-elect, it will be interesting to follow the brands whose campaigns rejected his policies, mannerisms and candidacy.
Did their bold marketing choices arise from deeply held organisational values, research which indicated the increasingly important millennial demographic skews liberal and is unlikely to change, or opportunism fuelled by this year’s inaccurate predictions of a comfortable win for Hillary?
Will their campaigns over the next four years retain this focus on liberal values, or will companies retreat from these positions amidst the conservative executive, legislature and judiciary triumvirate?
Only time will tell. But there’s a clear dilemma facing marketers who rely on the business of liberal, politically engaged millennials in a country which seems set to move in some very conservative directions.
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