No Time for Talk: The Payoff (and Perils) of Taking a Stand

4 min read

“Politics and consumer behavior have never been so closely intertwined.”

So sayeth Brayden King, Professor of Management and Organizations at Northwestern University, speaking to The Economist. He notes the increasing need for brands to be seen as authentic, to stand for something, in order to connect with young consumers. Even as I write this, many companies are scrambling to respond to the youth-led movement against gun violence and the recent March for Our Lives.

These corporations are reevaluating their ties to the NRA, their stances on selling guns, and how they allow their services to be used. It’s always a little hard to know how to interpret such change—is it a sign that companies are responding to a shift in the marketplace? Is it a moral stand? Or is it a cynical attempt to get a brand’s name into a few news cycles?

It’s not always easy to tell. Although it seems like clarity would come from dividing things up into neat boxes—this is advertising, this is politics, this is pop culture—I suspect that approach actually muddies the waters, because the ads that stand the test of time don’t seem to respect these divisions.

Exhibit A:

 We can all agree that this is some Grade A Cheese, right? I mean, come on, look at those faces: those are the expressions of people in the grip of a Wild Wild Country-style cult, not a bunch of adults about to enjoy a certain fizzy beverage. And given the constant allegations of abusive practices that have haunted the Coca-Cola company’s overseas operations, it’s a little stomach turning to see them positioned as some kind of symbol of global harmony.

And yet the ad endures. It turns up in terrible pop songs. It turns up in prestige television. And when William Backer, a “major figure in American advertising” died in 2016, the headlines announced Man who created ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ jingle dies at 89. Why did it become so memorable?

“Most of America was tiring of the Vietnam war,” said Roger Greenaway, who helped compose the jingle, speaking to ASCAP. “The lyric, although not overtly anti-war, delivered a message of peace and camaraderie.”

Okay, Roger, maybe. While that explanation seems like a stretch to me, I don’t have a better one to offer. It just doesn’t seem like enough, somehow. Because you know what else delivered a message of peace and camaraderie? Exhibit B:

Plenty of people have explained why this ad is terrible. But if you were a Pepsi executive, and if you recalled that old chestnut of your competitor’s, doesn’t it seem okay on paper? It engages with the mood of the country, it shows both police and protestors in a positive light, it embraces human diversity, it’s got a little shot of star power—shouldn’t that at least kind of work?

Somebody obviously thought so. Which is part of what puts brands right now in such a precarious position. William Goldman’s adage about Hollywood also applies here: Nobody knows anything. One ad becomes a classic, the other is reviled. In neither case was the outcome entirely anticipated.

Yet with so many powerful political movements taking center stage in the national conversation, it’s only reasonable to assume that movement marketing will increase in prominence as well. Brands respond to the culture as much—and probably a lot more—than culture responds to the brands.

So what to do? I would humbly submit that brands should consider who the hell they’re talking to. Young people today are more media savvy and more distrustful of corporations. They understand the difference between talk and action. In responding to the movement behind the March for Our Lives, Dick’s Sporting Goods could have released a commercial showing kids marching in the streets with vague signs (“Bad things bad! Good things good!”). Instead, they changed their policies around gun sales, released a statement, and accepted the outcome.

We may be seeing one of the most politically active generations in our country’s history. The idea that brands and advertising will just stay out of it is a little silly—pop culture, politics, and advertising are not so neatly divided. But just as political movements evolve, so too must brands. A catchy jingle is not enough.