Shut up and sell the product

I have always been against brands wading into the cultural conversation regarding any topic du jour for several reasons.

The first reason is that advertisers and their agencies are cynical and only care about a movement long enough to enter it into an award show. This is why I’ve watched Cannes Lions being handed out in unofficial but implied categories like: “Helping Africa get water” “Kony2012” “Syrian refugees” “Black Lives Matter,” and now “Trans rights.”

With very few exceptions this is just a cynical plot to win awards. And I know this because A. Africa still struggles with drought, B. Kony is in hiding, C. Syria is still a shit show, and D. Black Lives Matter is almost broke and only donated 33% of the near hundred million dollars raised.

And now, people are surprised when the brands who jumped onto the trans rights topic to get a better ESG score have all of a sudden not stood up for this cause when there was a backlash against it. Anheuser-Busch is hemorrhaging, its sales down 30% in just a few months due to a catastrophic partnership with Dylan Mulvany for Bud Light. Anheuser-Busch brand Budweiser tried to placate its traditional audience by running pro-American ads which many seemed as a hollow gesture.

Target has allegedly received backlash from anti-trans groups upset at their “tuck friendly” merchandise as well as pro-trans groups who feel the organization isn’t doing enough to support the community.
I say “allegedly,” because aside from some articles in left-leaning or right-leaning sites, we haven’t seen receipts, so to speak. Each side will believe whatever they wish.

What any of that has to do with selling products is beyond me.

Both sides of the political spectrum have engaged in this boycott behavior. Sleeping Giants, a left-leaning social media activism group has been pressuring brands to stop advertising on conservative outlets for years including Fox News, Rebel News in Canada and. Conexão Política in Brazil among other outlets. And now we are seeing this with conservative groups who are boycotting beer, big box stores, and...Chik-fil-a?

Even what seemed like safe ground for conservatives is now a battleground for the culture war, after the fast food company's Diversity Equity and Inclusion initiatives spread online. This is the same company that endured protests from liberals and LGBTQ activists until the company stopped donating to Christian organizations that opposed same-sex marriage.

Black Rifle Coffee Company, a staunchly conservative coffee company (whatever that means), owned by a veteran, came under fire a few years ago when its founder Evan Hafer appeared to make derogatory statements toward their conservative base, which caused Hafer to create a response video. The coffee company's stock went from a high of 29.45 to where it's currently hovering around the $5.50 mark.

So liberals and conservatives are now waiting for brands to step in it and unleash the outrage trolls and watch the business drop.

If you are receiving bomb threats from multiple groups, or if multiple groups hate you for taking a stand on anything, is all the backlash worth it? It's not as if Bud Light or Target or Black Rifle are running for office.

The flip side of this is if a brand wants to wade into the so-called culture war then they'd better be prepared to go all the way. Go down with the ship whether you are pro-trans or pro-America or whatever "pro" you are. Because gone are the days of lip service and "____washing" advertising. You must mean it and you must be prepared to suffer any backlash.

Either that or start measuring effectiveness on how many people have boycotted you. It's an odd way to run a business if you ask me.

I could live my life perfectly well without knowing what my toothpaste brand thinks about capital punishment. And I know I am not the only one. Because at least in America, there is ample evidence that people are fed up with everything becoming a political debate. They're tired of the debate, period. It's not helpful at this point and it's only going to get more people on both sides of the political spectrum angry.

The question is whether brands and their agencies who are complicit in what is becoming a divisive form of advertising will continue down this road at the expense of the bottom line no matter what, or whether some brands will recognize that appealing to a mass audience of diverse people and selling the brand based on a benefit rather than a social or political stance is in the end, better for the bottom line and society at large.

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Anonymous Adgrunt's picture
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Dudley Balstrop's picture

Well said. Good on you mate.