Commoditisation of controversy: Why brands are embracing politics

Nike's controversial ad featuring Colin Kaepernick is a sign that brands are increasingly folding politics into their larger marketing efforts
Commoditisation of controversy: Why brands are embracing politics
Campaign or cause? Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad in New York City
By Bernd Debusmann Jr
Wed 19 Sep 2018 08:22 AM

While wading into the murky world of politics and controversial current affairs may once have been unthinkable for brands, it is increasingly becoming an important part of companies’ marketing efforts – one that can either capture the zeitgeist or backfire horribly.

The seeping of politics into marketing efforts was highlighted recently by Nike. It put controversial former-NFL star Colin Kaepernick at the centre of an advertising campaign to mark the 30th anniversary of its famous “Just Do It” slogan.

Back in August 2016, Kaepernick, then a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers, sparked a storm of controversy by taking a knee during the tradional pre-game airing of the national anthem, an impromptu protest against rising incidents of police brutality against African-Americans – and one that led to him being effectively blacklisted from the sport.

A controversial business

To many on the left, Kaepernick is a hero who eschewed the high-paying world of professional sports to stand up for his ideals.

The ad itself points to this, with the player staring into the camera and urging viewers to “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”. To many conservative Americans, though, Kaepernick’s protest, and those that followed, was an insult to America and to its men and women in uniform.

People may see a company’s social activism as a poorly disguised attempt to piggyback on attention-grabbing headlines to boost sales

Either way, the ad was designed to spark a debate and go viral – which it did, very, very quickly.

Despite the objections from those on the right, which included President Trump and a #NikeBoycott campaign on Twitter, Nike’s gamble paid off. According to Edison Trends, a digital commerce research company, Nike sales in the US spiked by 31 percent. Another firm estimated that Nike received $43m worth of coverage in the first 24 hours.

Such campaigns don’t always pan out, of course. A Pepsi commercial in 2017 featuring Kendall Jenner, which borrowed imagery from America’s Black Lives Matter protests, was widely condemned.

Pepsi was forced to address the controversy by admitting that it “missed the mark” in trying to “project a global message of unity, peace and understanding”. The old adage that “any press is good press” failed to kick in and the campaign was promptly withdrawn.

We are not immune

These politically-tinged marketing campaigns are by no means exclusive to the United States. Many of those here in the region will remember the stir caused by Kuwaiti telco Zain’s Ramadan advert, in which a young Arab boy called for world leaders to come to the aid of Muslims and help end wars in the region.

In this case, the reaction was mixed, with some praising the ad and others calling it an exploitation of the Middle East’s suffering for monetary gain. Then there was Royal Jordanian, who successfully used Trump’s rise to market cheap flights to America “while you’re still allowed to”.

Herein is the gamble with such marketing efforts. As seems to have been the case with Nike, they may pay off. On the other hand, they may not – people may view a company’s social activism as a poorly disguised attempt to piggyback on attention-grabbing headlines.

Moral of the tale

Going forward, however, we are almost certainly going to see politics used in ads. According to a survey conducted by social media analytics company Sprout Social, two-thirds of consumers said it was either “somewhat important” or “very important” for brands to take a stand on social and political issues. Only 11 percent said it was “not at all important”.

The cynical might suggest this is the age where controversy can be easily commodified. Or it could be that corporations are stepping into an increasingly fractured political field. Either way, the moral of the Kaepernick campaign is clear: politics sells.


Bernd Debusmann Jr, chief Reporter

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