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Companies increasingly using politics in marketing, but there are risks: Experts

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(NEW YORK) — On a given morning, a conservative might grab an espresso from Black Rifle Coffee, which describes itself as “anti-hipster”; open up the soon-to-launch dating app, “Right Stuff,” founded by former White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s sister; and buy a cryptocurrency called “Let’s Go Brandon,” a slogan critical of President Joe Biden.

A liberal, meanwhile, could snag a pick-me-up at Blue State Coffee; look for romance on OKCupid, which appeals to “every single tree hugger,” according to one ad; and shop for apparel at Patagonia, which in Fall 2020 sold shorts with tags that said, “Vote the a**holes out, an apparent reference to then-president Donald Trump.

These products exemplify a growing trend among some businesses that take public stances on political issues not only through formal statements and social media posts but in overt marketing, experts told ABC News.

As partisan polarization deepens, companies see an opportunity to draw in consumers on the basis of strongly held political identities, the experts said. While such messaging cultivates loyalty among a devoted set of customers with matching beliefs, businesses risk damaging their bottom lines and further exacerbating polarization, since such ads alienate consumers with opposing views and freight everyday purchases with political overtones, they added.

“The idea in the mind of managers — especially investors and their boards — had always been to stay away from politics because it’s going to be a mess,” Nooshin Warren, a marketing professor at the University of Arizona Eller College of Management, who specializes in the use of political messaging, told ABC News.

“As consumers moved to the side of pushing for one political ideology, naturally firms had to respond to the market,” she added.

Seventy percent of consumers believe it’s important for brands to take a public stand on social and political issues, according to a survey of 1,500 people released by data firm Sprout Social in 2019. That figure jumped 4 percentage points higher than a survey two years earlier.

Along those lines, a survey from public relations firm Edelman, in 2018, found that nearly two thirds of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue. The result marked a jump of seven percentage points from the same survey question one year prior.

Political appeals for consumers trace back in part to the gay rights movement in the 1980s and later the fight for marriage equality in the 2010s — moments when sexual orientation became a prominent political issue, Warren, of the University of Arizona, said.

The phenomenon of politics in advertising reached an inflection point in 2012 when shares in J.C. Penney plummeted more than 25% amid backlash to an ad featuring a lesbian couple and their daughter as well as the hiring of gay comedian Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson. Ultimately, the company fired then-CEO Ron Johnson, who defended the moves.

Six years later, Nike launched an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who knelt during the national anthem in a protest for racial justice. In response, some angry customers posted videos on social media of them burning their Nike shoes. “This started more polarization between consumers,” Warren said.

In recent years, brands became associated with conservative or liberal views as companies or their CEOs increasingly took stands on prominent political issues, Vikas Mittal, a professor of marketing at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business, who has studied the issue, told ABC News. The chief executives at companies like MyPillow and Goya, for instance, drew applause from some and scrutiny from others after comments in support of Trump.

More recently, Disney sparked ire earlier this year from prominent national voices and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis when the company publicly opposed the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which is now law, prohibiting public school teachers from providing instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for some of the youngest students and what opponents say is age-inappropriate material.

In April, the state moved to dissolve a special tax district enjoyed by Disney. The special district is a private government run by Disney World that allows it to offer services such as zoning and fire protection. Disney is the parent company of ABC News.

Perry Lowder, a brand manager with consultancy firm Joe Smith, which works with a range of clients that includes Fortune 100 companies and startups, said businesses have felt heightened expectations from customers that they take public positions on political topics.

“Brands and leaders of brands are feeling pressure to take a stand on social issues,” he told ABC News. “We’re seeing that in conversations every single day.”

“We have seen, culturally, just an increased desire from the average consumer to know more about the brands that they are choosing to support — not only how they’re making their products but how they are donating their money and profits,” he added. “So the C-suite has to keep that in mind.”

For the most part, such public stances from clients have not taken the form of overt political messages in advertising, Lowder said. “I haven’t seen as much a deliberate attempt to go after consumers based on how liberal or conservative they are,” he added. “It’s far more subtle.”

Large companies understand that direct political messages risk driving away half of their customers, many of whom are otherwise “politically inert,” said Mittal, of Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. He added: “If a brand takes a specific position, it ends up creating a lot of acrimony.”

However, Katharine Howie, a professor of marketing at The University of Southern Mississippi, said she has noticed a rise in marketing that invokes explicit political appeals, in part because such advertisements draw eyeballs, a key goal of any marketing campaign.

“It can be a way to get customers’ attention and break through the clutter,” Howie said. “That’s the first step in advertising: Getting people to put their phones down and pay freaking attention.”

On the whole, political messaging in social media posts negatively affects the reach of companies, according to a study released in May by researchers at Temple University. After examining 435 major brands and 396,988 social media posts, the study found a negative impact of expressions of Black Lives Matter support on consumer responses such as followers and likes.

Lately, chief executives have become less willing to speak out on political topics, as they’ve seen the negative effects of alienating some customers, Mittal said. “We’re seeing the backlash,” he said. “I think a lot of CEOs are dialing back that whole idea.”

But other experts said they expect a continued rise of political messaging from companies. Howie, of the University of Southern Mississippi, said such communication on the part of companies exacerbates polarization, which in turn incentivizes companies to make further political appeals.

“It’s a feedback loop,” she said. “We live in our little silos and echo chambers, where we’re all getting pulled further and further to the ends of the political spectrum, and companies are now engaging in more political conversation and political action, and that’s pushing us even further apart.”

Warren, of University of Arizona Eller College of Management, agreed.

“These days, I haven’t seen any topic that is not politicized,” she said. “That’s the nature of what our country is becoming.”

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