"We open on a Mexican person wearing a sombrero. He takes it off, underneath there’s a Muslim woman. The Muslim woman takes off her hijab and underneath is a Jewish person. The Jewish person takes off his yarmulke. Underneath is a Cheeto."
That’s a scene from the most recent broadcast of Saturday Night Live with actors Alec Baldwin and Aidy Bryant playing the part of advertising gurus pitching their ideas to executives from Cheetos. It underscores the challenge of brands, faced with a heated political climate, to show they care without appearing too socially aware.
Brands including 84 Lumber, Budweiser, Airbnb, and Audi aired commercials during Super Bowl LI that touched on hot-button social issues, with many garnering praise from critics. Companies don’t just make socially aware ads to pull at the heart-strings, there’s also a solid business rationale for doing so. The business significance of a company’s stances on social issues has never been more important, according to Harris Poll data published this month.
"When a brand is perceived as having a point of view, it becomes more valuable," says Christopher Graves, president and founder of the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science.
However, as the Cheetos "commercial" highlights, not just any brand can have this kind of conversation. If a brand engages on a controversial topic without proper planning, it can appear to be trying too hard, or just downright disingenuous.
Imagine being at a dinner party with someone who moralizes without permission. Brands that advertise their social values can have the same effect on consumers, notes Graves.
"Behavior is important and overlooked," he explains. "It is just talk to profess a point of view. What do you actually do to live up to it? When the talk outweighs the ‘do,’ you have a problem."
Consumers know when companies are pandering to them, which can result in a loss of a brand’s credibility and trust. Authenticity is crucial, say experts.
Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall said via email that audiences, especially younger ones, are looking for brands that not only reflect the values they hold dear but will also invest in their values.
"Consumers tend to respect brands that put longer-term social issues ahead of shorter-term transactional issues," he explains.
The best way for a brand to avoid looking opportunistic is to live its values daily and not wait for the Super Bowl to show it suddenly cares about an issue.
"It's imperative to make sure a brand’s alignment doesn't come out of the blue to clients or prospects, and it's something deep-rooted in its philosophy," says Stacey Miller, Cision communications director. "If it isn't something that's publically been expressed before, making a bold statement might not be the best choice. Gradually rolling messaging out to test the waters and see reception is the cautious route."
When brands are considering entering the political fray, WE Communications consumer EVP Tiffany Cook asks them four questions: What does the brand offer? How can it use that to reinforce its position? Is what a brand is planning in line with its missions and values? Does it align with what its employees and customers believe?
Not taking a stand can also backfire. Kevin Nabipour, MD of content strategies at Allison+Partners, contends the most reckless action a brand can take is to play it safe and pretend it doesn’t occupy the same unstable and unpredictable world its consumers inhabit.
"While some may have groaned during many of these political and socially conscious ads and their devotion to weightier issues [during the Super Bowl], I actually found myself eye-rolling through how small and silly the contributions from Avocados from Mexico, Mr. Clean, and T-Mobile featuring Justin Bieber were," he says.
A dangerous political climate for brands
Brands are in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario, says consultant Jeremy Pepper.
"You don't speak out? You're condemned for not having a position. You do speak out? You're condemned for having the wrong position. You’re selling to the administration or the [Trump] family? You're condemned or praised, depending on the audience," says Pepper. "Brands really have to figure out who their audience is, what they want to be selling, and what the best avenue is."
WE Communications’ Brand Agility Index of this year’s Super Bowl found that Budweiser’s decision to focus its ad on immigration led to 97,000 mentions across social media and high engagement scores, but sentiment was split 50-50 and the spot ignited the hashtag #BoycottBudweiser.
Even if a brand ticks all the right boxes with a bold political statement, there will be cynics who see its action as self-serving, says Shante Bacon, founder and CEO of 135th Street Agency. For instance, Lyft denounced President Donald Trump’s proposed immigration ban last month and made a million-dollar pledge to the American Civil Liberties Union. Many supported Lyft’s decision, but others called the ride-sharing company out for capitalizing on the situation with a "PR stunt."
According to Bacon, the question brands need to ask themselves about the risk of criticism is "so what?"
"Whenever anyone does something that appears to be good and is out of the norm, there is always a skeptic out there who is saying they are trying to help themselves and sell things," says Bacon. "But if it is helping people and helping people to create a better world, so what if it is self-serving?"