Why do brands keep stumbling into political controversies?

Image: Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Coffeemaker wreckage, political pizza purchases, and erratic boycott calls flooded social media this week as major brands struggle to navigate the riptide of America’s culture wars.

Controversies like Fox News host Sean Hannity’s defense of accused sex predator and Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore and NFL player protests have once again thrust consumer companies into the middle of loud fights over charged topics like racism in America and society’s treatment of sexual assault.

Brands have responded to this activism with all the rigid conviction of an inflatable tube man at a car lot. 

Keurig recanted its decision to pull ads from Hannity’s show after the television personality’s outraged fans spent last weekend smashing their 100-dollar coffee machines in protest. Other Hannity advertisers like Volvo and Realtor.com also waffled, tweeting and deleting statements hours apart.

Meanwhile, Papa John’s tried to walk back a remark an exec made in a recent earnings call suggesting that NFL national anthem protests had hurt sales.

“🖕 those guys,” the pizza chain tweeted of its neo-Nazi admirers.

Papa John’s chief marketing officer Brandon Rhoten said the company decided to send the tweet because he claims its stance was being misrepresented in the media.

“When it became obvious that our position wasn’t clear we decided we needed to act,” Rhoten said in an email. “Many seem to report what companies say through their own personal bias versus actually looking at the words, both in social and news outlets.”

He said the vulgar emoji was added to underscore “how adamantly opposed Papa John’s is to groups of this nature.”

Forced into the fray

Discussions of genocidal fascism are relatively new territory for the marketing and public relations arms of chain restaurants. 

But they’re now getting more practice. The extreme political chasms blown open by Donald Trump’s election have forced all brands to more frequently take sides on contentious social issues this year, whether it’s spurred by crowds of white supremacists marching in Virginia or Ivanka Trump’s shoes appearing at Nordstrom.

“It’s just an explosion out there,” said branding consultant Dean Crutchfield. “People can vote in the millions just by clicking on things…There’s now lots of ways to hold brands accountable.”

A vigorous boycott movement has emerged to pressure brands to cut ties with the Trump administration, his business empire, and the fringe right-wing media that powered his campaign. Trump-supporting counter-protesters have responded in kind.

The learning curve for businesses in this new environment has been a bit clumsy. On one hand, they’re sometimes eager to associate their brand with fundamentally uncontroversial but emotional progressive values like anti-racism, gender equality, and legal immigration. The commercial breaks of this year’s Super Bowl were blanketed in such messages. 

But if enough of their customer base would rather they shut up about those lofty ideals, they’ll do that too. 

The result is often an awkward flip-flopping response like those of Keurig, Papa John’s, and others. Brands will test the waters with one message but get spooked by the number of people they anger and move in the other direction.

This reaction is the sort of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t prisoner’s dilemma in which nobody really comes away happy. More than anything, consumers see it as disingenuous, and both sides are left with suspicions.

“There’s no study in the world that says that brands benefit from politics,” Crutchfield said. “It’s usually not something that is a good strategy for brands in a typical way.”

In some sense, brand marketers brought this on themselves. Consumer businesses have generally become more vocal about social causes in recent years as market research has shown a millennial appetite for brand activism. Social media has also reshaped the relationship between brands and their customers, and encouraged the former to develop anthropomorphized presences that weigh in on issues of the day.

‘Woke’ brands

This effort to appear socially conscious has cemented the notion that brands should have moral worldviews beyond selling things and take stances accordingly.

That idea’s now grown out of their control and, sometimes, their comfort level. For all of their touting of gender equality, brands like Volvo or Nature’s Bounty granola would evidently rather not parse the many allegations of underage sex predation against a Senate candidate or Hannity’s complicity in excusing them.

Such are the limitations of conspicuous brand posturing. It’s telling that many of the Trump-related consumer controversies have stemmed not from marketing or PR output but comments made during earnings calls and industry conferences — venues at which it’s assumed that the audience is mostly shareholders and investors. 

Trump’s business-friendly White House stands to benefit Corporate America in all kinds of ways, and the attitudes of the C-suite power-brokers don’t necessarily match those the brand presents to the public.

Some of the brands that pulled about-faces on Hannity’s show explained them away as situations in which social media staffers acted outside of the company’s internal policies, and higher-ups intervened.

Above all else, public-facing companies are controversy-averse by nature.

“This is an unacceptable situation that requires an overhaul of our issues response and external communications policies and the introduction of safeguards to ensure this never happens again,” Keurig CEO Bob Gamgort said of his company’s original announcement that it would pull ads from Hannity’s show.

Above all else, though, public-facing companies are controversy-averse by nature. If enough people are making noise about something — regardless of what it is — they’ll usually err on the side of acting fast to make it stop.

But the internet makes it easier to create the illusion of a widespread consumer insurgency or otherwise cynically manipulate this tendency. For instance, a relatively small group of online reactionaries involved in the so-called “Gamergate” movement were able to convince several of now-defunct Gawker’s blue-chip advertisers to suspend business with the site through a targeted campaign in 2014.

High-running emotions

As the willingness to break expensive kitchen appliances might suggest, the debate around Hannity’s behavior is also very emotionally charged. Data from advertising research firm iSpot.tv found that people tended to direct a good part of those feelings toward associated brands.

“Unlike most emotional conversations about TV, brands have been raised to the forefront of the discussion surround ‘Hannity,'” said Zach Servideo, a producer who works on behalf of iSpot. “These brand-driven viewers’ emotional reactions are really unprecedented when you look at any show on TV.”

That’s the stuff of marketing nightmares. Brands tend to be as fearful of organic negative emotions accelerating into a viral movement against them as they are obsessed with finding the positive analogue.

So what is a poor, beleaguered brand to do? One solution is to agree upon a set of steadfast moral standards that are independent of short-term market considerations. Then become savvy enough on contemporary issues to understand and evaluate the validity and sincerity of opposing arguments before diving into a controversy headfirst.

Skittles demonstrated how effective this simple approach can be last fall when Donald Trump Jr. posted a tweet comparing the candy to refugees.

“Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy,” Skittles said in a statement addressing the tweet. “We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”

The message was definitive, consistent, and sensitive to the perception that it might be butting into a heavy political discussion to sell candy.

But then again, there’s always the middle finger emoji.

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Tags: activism business donald-trump keurig papa-johns politics roy-moore sean-hannity

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