Brands Behaving Bigly: Advertisers Need Courage, Clarity in Trump Era

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Editor's Note:

Andrew Essex is the CEO of Tribeca Enterprises, parent company of the Tribeca Film Festival. He was the founding CEO of celebrated advertising agency Droga5. The agency won multiple “Agency of the Year” awards and has been praised in The New York Times, New York magazine, and The Guardian, which dubbed it “the most exciting agency on the planet.” Andrew serves on the board of The American Advertising Federation and is the co-author of Chasing Cool with former Barney’s CEO Gene Pressman and Le Freak with Nile Rodgers. His new book, The End of Advertising, will land in June.

It’s been more than a week since the thrilling conclusion of Super Bowl 51, and you don’t have to be a bookie to bet that Tom Brady is still savoring his come-from-behind victory. Or that all of Atlanta continues to wonder what might have been.

As we all know, however, the big game involves far more than what transpires on the field. Perhaps the biggest extracurricular players in that spectacle are the advertisers, many of whom spend upwards of $5 million dollars for thirty seconds of airtime in the hope of making a lasting impression in front of 110 million eyeballs.

Yes, those expensive Super Bowl spots have long been an intrinsic part of the show, and given the sound and fury required to cut through the clutter, the go-to play has always been broad comedy and/or hiring the biggest available celebrity. In many respects, 2017 was no different: There was Melissa McCarthy getting crushed by a whale; Christopher Walken mugging with Justin Timberlake; Mr. Clean twerking like a Chippendales dancer. It was all mildly amusing and painfully formulaic.

One might think nothing had changed, if it weren’t for that other high-stakes game taking place in The White House.

Today, as we all know, the Trump Administration is creating a uniquely contentious sociopolitical climate in America, and given so many brands’ interest in making themselves part of the national conversation, it raises a fundamental question about the future of marketing: Should advertisers get involved in politics going forward? What, if any, responsibility do brands have in regard to commenting on social issues vis-à-vis our new Tweeter in Chief? Is it better that they stand tall or put their collective heads in the sand? As a former advertising executive, I’d always opt for standing tall, but only if the brand in question has a cohesive message and fully evaluates the many ways they can be misunderstood.

The Super Bowl is the perfect petri dish for considering the consequences, because clearly there are risks. This year, the two most notoriously topical ads came from Anheuser-Busch, one of the biggest brands in the world, and 84 Lumber, a previously unknown lumber supply company. AB made a film about its founders. One could argue that the company was simply celebrating its heritage. Unfortunately, the brewer found itself smack in the middle of Trump’s immigration controversy. Even more unfortunately, the spot didn’t seem to articulate a clear position. As a result, AB was hammered on both sides of the issue. Meanwhile, 84 Lumber appears to have made a film chronicling a migrant family’s arduous journey, but which turns out to have been in favor of Trump’s wall. It too succeeded in doing nothing more than confusing people.

Confusing people couldn’t represent a worse outcome for an advertiser. The last thing any brand wants to do is to alienate more than one constituency and thus have everyone against them. Proof can be found in the Super Bowl spots by Coke and Audi, who clearly advocated for diversity and equal pay. But let’s not forget the obvious: When brands engage in social issues, it’s generally because their end goal is selling something. It would be nice to suggest that advertisers are obligated to take on social issues, but they also have fiduciary responsibilities. The good news is that these ideas aren’t mutually exclusive: Research shows that consumers increasingly reward brands with good intentions. A sincere sense of purpose makes a lasting impression, maybe even more than an ad with a talking dog.

The trick is to connect the message with the merch. Which means – as long as brands avoid confusing customers about what side they’re on – we’ll likely see more advertisers engaging in social issues, no matter who’s in the Oval Office.