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How Social Media Made Brands Embrace Social Issues

6th July 2022

With a Sprout Social survey finding that two-thirds of consumers (66%) say it’s important for brands to take a public stance on social and political issues, businesses have become politically vocal in ways it would have been hard to imagine twenty years ago. Yet despite increasing pressure for brands to be emphatic in their support of social justice movements, their attempts to fulfil this expectation haven’t always been successful. 

By looking at the changing ways in which politics has intersected with advertising, and exploring the new expectations placed on large brands, businesses can avoid making embarrassing missteps and confidently stand for what they believe is right on social media

A Short History of Social Issues in Advertising 

While brands and advertising campaigns have tended to reflect the prevailing attitudes of the day, they often lag somewhat behind progessive cultural conversation, and arguably leant more conservative. Despite the most overt and widespread sexism and racist stereotyping being confined to the 1970s, brands have historically failed to represent the diversity of the population, and over-relied on stereotyping and appropriation to sell products.

Whether it was adopting laughably simplistic interpretations of cultures and aesthetics from around the world (perhaps the most common being the use of orientalist tropes and the idea of the “mysterious East”), or carefully side-stepping the depiction of minority groups for fear it wouldn’t play well to certain audiences, brands haven’t always put their best foot forward on social issues. 

This began to change as awareness of, and sympathy for, social justice campaigns grew, and prejudices of all kinds became far less tolerated in mainstream society. While landmark events such as Star Trek in the late 60s (with its diverse cast), The Cosby Show in the 1980s (a crossover hit) and Ellen in the 1990s (coming out in both her show and real life) had ripple effects throughout society, it wasn’t until the social media age that brands became more aware of their audiences, and more accountable for their actions.

Some companies, such as Volkswagen and IKEA, began to tentatively depict same-sex couple relationships during the nineties. It can be argued, however, that portraying physical affection in these relationships was still largely taboo long after these first steps forward, with Heinz pulling a 2008 ad which showed two men kissing each other goodbye after it drew complaints. Cheerios, on the other hand, held firm in 2013 against a racist backlash after creating an advert which featured an interracial couple having breakfast with their child. 

What progress we have seen has also come at a different pace in different regions. When the McDonald’s CEO stated in 2010 that he felt it would be inappropriate to run a French campaign in the USA that included a gay teenager, because it wasn’t the “norm” there, criticism (and cynicism) wasn’t far behind. 

Even in the last half a decade, some advertising campaigns have attempted to allude vaguely to the ideals of social justice in order to appear progressive, while still being vague enough to avoid alienating anyone. Perhaps the most obvious example is Pepsi’s now notorious 2016 campaign, which was humorously reenacted by Black Lives Matter protesters and recently parodied in Amazon’s superhero satire The Boys. 

Savvy and informed young consumers reacted badly to what they saw as a transparent attempt to pander to their ideals while failing to take any real stance, and balked at the self-serving suggestion that a brand of soda may seriously ignite social change and unite opposing forces. After facing both anger and mockery from its intended audience, Pepsi decided to stop running the ad, and its star, Kendall Jenner, tearfully apologised for having had anything to do with it. 

The Influence of Social Media 

Social media, and most particularly Twitter, quickly became an epicentre for activism and political debate, as people who may never have had their voices amplified in traditional media began to discuss their experience and viewpoints to ever-growing audiences. With this, the awareness of issues surrounding race, sexuality, gender and class have grown, and movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter gained momentum. 

The flipside of this progressive conversation, however, has been a disturbing trend of extremely right-wing commentators gaining fame on platforms such as YouTube, and echo chambers in unsavoury corners of the Internet allowing reactionary views to thrive. 

Learning that they could gain both attention and advertising revenue by stoking outrage in the mainstream – and pandering covertly and explicitly to a small but vocal audience of those in the far and extreme right wing – figures such as Katie Hopkins and Milo Yiannopoulos (now both permanently banned from Twitter) were able to rise to prominence.

This pattern was soon followed by others who realised that there is money, fame and notoriety to be gained in positioning themselves as a truth-telling political outsider, as evidenced by the somewhat pathetic attempts of figures such as Laurence Fox to monetise their self-consciously controversial views.

Even members of the established political commentariat, such as Piers Morgan, can be relied upon to annoy progressives and delight their fans by holding forth on the issues of the day over Twitter – with particular furore stirred up over vegan sausage rolls and whether men should wear baby carriers. It may feel trite and petty (because it is) but this kind of content is the meat and potatoes of social media platforms, driving engagement and fueling interaction, and it was only a matter of time before corporate entities started to get involved.

So where do brands fit in this increasingly polarized landscape, one which is often described in terms of a culture war? Traditionally, while they were comfortable communicating ideals of equality in their brand ethos, companies were reluctant to plant their flag in the ground in active debates, or definitively support social movements. To make political statements (beyond fuzzy commitments to oppose discrimination and support the environment) was seen as beyond a brand’s remit, and a quick way to shrink your potential customer base. 

The Place of Brands in Social Media Debates

It could be argued that this stance truly began to shift in 2017. When infamous Fox talk show host Sean Hannity’s defended a GOP senate candidate accused of historic sex offenses, the coffee machine company Keurig was asked on Twitter whether they felt it was an appropriate place to advertise. To the surprise of some, they stated that it wasn’t, and pulled their adverts from the show. 

While this was likely a calculated move, few could have predicted the level of publicity it would receive. Sean Hannity fans took to videoing themselves destroying their Keurig coffee machines in a bizarre form of protest, while others applauded Keurig’s decision to make a moral judgement call, even encouraging others to buy their products. 

By riling up a very angry minority, while also being on the right side of the argument to the majority of social media users, Keurig had inadvertently found themselves talked about extensively both in newspapers and on social media. The company wobbled when Hannity fans threatened a boycott, but later found that the boycott largely failed to materialise – and may even have benefitted from a few replacements for smashed-up machines. All this taught large brands a valuable lesson – creating controversy online isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the majority of people are on your side. 

Soon after, Nike released an advert featuring the Black Lives Matter advocate, civil rights activist and football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, showcasing black athletes and encouraging people to follow their dreams. To the well-adjusted individual, there was nothing controversial in this message, but the involvement of Kaepernick touched a nerve. As could be predicted from the Keurig affair, a section of social media users responded poorly. 

By getting out their camera phones, filming themselves burning their Nike shoes and calling for a boycott, reactionaries ensured that Nike’s ad was part of the cultural commentary in traditional news outlets and on social media platforms for days on end. The boycott once again failed to manifest into anything tangible, and with those opposing the ad destroying nothing but their own personal property, the company’s value increased by six billion dollars from the resulting publicity. 

Gillette quickly followed suit with an advert exploring toxic masculinity, prompting outrage from Piers Morgan (who is so successful in getting these conversations trending that some suspect he might even be paid to amplify his disapproval). With this, it was further demonstrated that the mantra of #gowokegobroke – oft repeated in far-right circles – simply doesn’t translate into the real world. In fact, it was their very outrage (and the subsequent outrage at their outrage) which made these campaigns a success. 

Changing Expectations 

In the intervening years, being explicit in the fight against racism, sexism and homophobia has become something that consumers expect from brands with large followings and cultural clout. Baiting the extreme right and becoming the key factor in a trending topic is no longer part of the equation; to not speak out on these issues is now seen as perpetuating them, and consumers want brands to step up to the plate when it comes to social justice. 

In 2020 and beyond, brands and individuals across the world united in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. For those slower on the uptake – and looking to be on the right side of history – this has been another learning curve. While Uber was criticised for “woke-washing” after posting a BLM message, with detractors pointing out that their majority BAME workforce do not enjoy basic workers’ rights, Ben and Jerry’s (a brand owned by Unilever) was celebrated for its unequivocal stance – something which fits in with the ice cream company’s socially conscious history. 

While a business’s main drive is to make profits for its shareholders, the fact remains that the majority of individuals that make up marketing teams and boardrooms probably sincerely hold these views, and now feel emboldened to amplify them. This shift is a supremely positive one, increasing the unacceptability of prejudice in public discourse, and giving the voices of the oppressed a greater platform to communicate their message. 

Important Takeaways for Businesses on Social Media 

For SMEs, there is less of a responsibility to use your platform to promote important issues. You may ultimately decide that it’s inappropriate for you and your business to do so, particularly if you don’t know a lot about the issue, and feel your contribution may detract from more qualified voices. However, when making a stance online, there are things businesses can learn from the mistakes and achievements of larger brands, such as: 

  1. Speak from an authentic place 

When communicating your commitment as a brand to certain issues, it’s vital to be authentic and sincere in the way you approach this. For example, if your passion as a business owner for environmental issues aligns with your brand, it makes sense to carry this personal passion through into your brand ethos. People respond more positively to progressive action from brands when they truly believe it is well intentioned (rather than pandering or disingenuous), so it is important to speak candidly as a brand about the causes most important to you. 

  1. Avoid tokenism by making sure your words translate into action 

People can sometimes interpret social media statements on social issues from brands as shallow tokenism. For example, companies have been accused of attempting to profit off the “pink pound” for posting the rainbow flag during Pride, without making a tangible commitment to end discrimination around sexual orientation or gender diversity. It’s therefore important to back any statement of solidarity with real-world support, such as donating to a relevant charity, or offering an opportunity to someone from a minority background. 

  1. Think carefully before declaring allegiances in mainstream politics 

While there has been a long history of large businesses donating to their preferred political candidate (e.g. Taco Bell supporting Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and Google donating to Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008), they have rarely been explicit about it – but it appears this has begun to change. 

The owner of Wetherspoons, Tim Martin, felt confident enough in his pro-Brexit stance to supply his pubs with Leave-promoting coasters, which was an undeniably ballsy move considering how contentious the Brexit debate was (and still is) in the UK. On the other side of the pond, Dove happily mocked Donald Trump’s “alternative facts”, despite knowing that this may well alienate part of the USA’s political mainstream at that time – although, since the end of his presidency and the infamous Capitol riots, Trump’s core base may now be considered more fringe. 

Within mainstream politics, publicly backing certain figures is a choice you may make as a brand, but it does run the risk of creating discord among your audience, and could put people off your company. In the case of Wetherspoons, using their vast platform to promote a particular viewpoint was interpreted by some as an overreach of power, especially at a time when the question of ‘Leave vs. Remain’ was feeling increasingly tribal and divisive. 

It’s therefore important to remember the importance of tolerating different viewpoints and making sure that your customers don’t feel excluded for their political opinion. 

Ultimately, the pressure is growing on anyone with a large public platform and financial clout to use their powers for good. Brands are not excluded from this, and companies should carefully consider the damage that might be caused by simply staying quiet. While there’s a risk that taking a side may cause controversy, playing both sides could become the biggest risk of all.

Nick Huxsted
6th July 2022

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