Under the Influence

Summer Series - Grab Your Wallet: When Brands Go Political

This week, we explore how brands are becoming political for the first time in history. We’ll look at what happens when major retailers decide to “Dump Trump”, the controversial Super Bowl ad that challenged an immigration policy and crashed the Internet and how even Pepsi could drop the political ball. Years ago, most advertisers would have never dreamed of offending anyone with a pulse and a wallet. But all that is changing.
Model and Kardashian clan member Kendall Jenner's turn as a Pepsi-wielding protester had many on social media decrying the imagery as appropriation of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Pepsi/YouTube)

Our Summer Series airs Thursdays & Saturdays at 11:30 on CBC Radio One.

This week, we explore how brands are becoming political for the first time in history. We'll look at what happens when major retailers decide to "Dump Trump", the controversial Super Bowl ad that challenged an immigration policy and crashed the Internet and how even Pepsi could drop the political ball. Years ago, most advertisers would have never dreamed of offending anyone with a pulse and a wallet. But all that is changing.

Back in 1955, Tommy Smothers was studying advertising at San Jose University.

The senior Smothers brother. (Image Source: nndb)

Not long after, he and his younger brother Dick formed a trio with a singer and performed as a folk group. Eventually, the brothers decided to become a duo – but worried about how it would go over without a lead singer.

So they tried mixing humour with the music.

The crowds loved it.

In 1967, they landed a national television show on CBS:

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was hip and funny and attracted the top musical guests of the time.

Just a few months later, it would nudge the mighty Bonanza out of the #1 spot.

Everything was going fine until nine episodes into the first season when CBS censors decided to remove a funny sketch about… censors.

CBS went public with the censorship, telling the New York Times that the Smothers Brothers showed "bad taste" in the censorship sketch.

The article infuriated Tommy Smothers.

To retaliate, the brothers ramped up their controversial material almost immediately.

The Smothers Brothers' humour became much more political. They voiced their opposition to the Vietnam war in comedy sketches. They sang about their disapproval of CBS policies.

Every script became a battle with the network. Show writer Mason Williams later said that if CBS hadn't drawn a line in the sand over that first censored sketch, the Smothers Brothers probably would have continued in a more traditional vein. But that decision changed the entire direction of the show.

A couple of episodes later, Tommy Smothers told the viewing audience that the show was being regularly censored. It was one of the first times a show host had ever said that on national television.

In 1968, The Beatles chose the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to televise their new videos for Hey Jude and Revolution.

It was interesting that the Beatles chose The Smothers Brothers show over Ed Sullivan, who had given them their launch in North America.

But the Beatles found kindred spirits in the Smothers Brothers. They liked their humour – and their politics.

Meanwhile, the fights with CBS grew worse. As the comedy got more political, the Nixon White House made it clear to CBS that it wasn't happy with the humour.

At one point, George Harrison made a surprise guest appearance on the show.

The ongoing resistance from the network all came down to one thing: CBS was afraid of losing sponsors. And sponsors were afraid of alienating their customers.

Near the end of the third season, the battle between CBS and the Smothers Brothers hit its breaking point.

CBS refused to air – not just a sketch – but an entire episode because of its controversial content.

Tommy Smothers went head-to-head against the President of CBS.

The network accused the Smothers Brothers of not delivering their show early enough for CBS censors to vet the material.

Tommy Smothers argued that delivering episodes earlier than originally requested wasn't part of their contract.

It was a showdown - and CBS pulled the trigger. It cancelled the very successful Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The Smothers Brothers maintain they weren't cancelled – they were fired.

Interesting to note that all the Smothers Brothers episodes ran un-censored in Canada, as CTV – the network airing the show – didn't have a problem with the content. When CBS refused to air the controversial episode, Tommy Smothers came to Toronto, rented a suite at the Park Plaza Hotel, and invited reporters to see the show the network had banned.

The press almost universally supported the Smothers Brothers. The New York Times ran an editorial saying that networks profess their right to freedom of expression but fail to exercise it in defence of their own programs.

In the end, the show's political stance got it cancelled, reportedly due to pressure from the Nixon administration.

The Smothers Brothers had finally been smothered.

The world of marketing has entered a new political era.

For the first time in history, companies are starting to take a political stand.

Up until now, brands never dared take a political position, but these days the public is demanding to know where a brand stands. Customers want to know if a company is left or right, red or blue, with government policies or against.

Companies are finding themselves forced to be partisan.

And for the first time, brands and politics are clashing.

Ernest Hemmingway once described falling into bankruptcy as "gradually, then suddenly."

The new order of marketing is following a similar path.

Gradually, over time, more and more companies have gotten behind social causes. Like LGBTQ rights, or equality for women, or sustainability.

Then suddenly - brands have started taking a political stance.

They have begun to support or oppose political policies.

Understand something – brands have never done this historically. They just want everybody to be happy.

While the world thrashed between political leaders and their policies, brands have always stood on the sidelines - silent. Like quiet, efficient waiters in a busy restaurant.

The big fear – of course – was that by taking a political position, brands risk alienating 50% of their customers.

Companies have always been forensically careful about offending.

Commercials are always being pulled or revised if they contain even the slightest element that offends viewers. It could be a sound, a visual, or a word that sounds incorrect – even if it isn't.

So paranoid are advertisers of offending, that it has led to the overwhelming plethora of safe, bland advertising that goes gently into that good night.

Most advertisers would never dream of offending anyone with a pulse and a wallet.

But all that is changing.

The 2017 Super Bowl contained two firsts.

Superbowl LI was a big year - and not just for football.

One – the price for a 30-second commercial hit a new high of $5 million.

And two – brands took a bold political stand in a way they've never done before.

Take Airbnb.

The commercial it ran in Super Bowl 2017 was titled "We Accept."

The commercial came just nine days after President Trump signed an executive order to close America's borders to many refugees and immigrants.

It was a direct response to Trump's policy, and came as close as it could to renouncing it so as not to run afoul of the network and NFL guidelines that say commercial time is "not for viewpoint or advocacy of controversial issues."

But in a memo to employees, Airbnb's CEO Brian Chesky was explicit about his opposition, saying he profoundly disagreed with Trump's policy and that it was a direct obstacle to Airbnb's mission to make people around the world feel like they could "belong anywhere."

The company built on travel and sharing took a stand. (Image Source: airbnb)

That weekend, the company began to provide free and subsidized temporary housing for people who had been affected by the immigration restrictions.

The We Accept commercial was ranked #1 in a Super Bowl survey done by Advertising Age magazine.

Quite an achievement – considering Airbnb wasn't even going to advertise in the Super Bowl.

Six days after Trump's ruling, the Airbnb founders heard there was some advertising space available and they wanted to make a statement.

So they worked around the clock to put together the commercial – completing it in only three days. Astounding, considering it usually takes weeks or even months to create and polish a Super Bowl commercial.

The commercial that ranked second in that same poll was for a company I had never heard of before.

84 Lumber is a building materials supply company.

It is located in a town called 84, Pennsylvania. The town was once called Smithville, but due to postal confusion with another town called Smithville, the name was changed to "84" in 1884.

84 Lumber has about 250 locations, but was somewhat unknown nationally.

While audiences expect to be entertained during the big game - not lobbied - 84 Lumber decided to make a statement with its Super Bowl commercial:

When the company submitted the commercial to the Fox network, it was rejected.

The depiction of Donald Trump's proposed border wall was deemed too controversial.

So 84 Lumber and its advertising agency created a "prequel" of sorts, titled "The Journey Begins" that showed the first half of the mother & daughter's journey to the border and ended with a website address inviting viewers to log on to see more.

Part Two – "The Journey Ends" - the controversial portion containing the wall - was shifted to the Journey84.com website.

Over 300,000 Super Bowl viewers rushed to the website within minutes to see how the story ended, and six million followed in the next hour causing the 84 Lumber website to crash.

84 Lumber is an interesting company.

First, it's run by a woman, Maggie Hardy Magerko.

Owner and president for 25 years. (Image Source: 84 Lumber)

84 Lumber was the only Super Bowl advertiser to buy more than one minute of airtime, as Part One ran 90 seconds – worth somewhere between $10 and $15 million dollars.

Which is notable, considering the company only spent $750K on paid advertising in all of 2015.

The stated purpose of the commercial was recruitment, as 84 Lumber is suffering a labour shortage and was looking for workers age 20-29.

The other fascinating fact is that Maggie Hardy Magerko voted for Donald Trump.

While Magerko maintained the commercial wasn't meant to be political, her advertising agency later said the ad was a statement about immigration. The choice to depict Mexican characters was deliberate.

The point being that the United States is a land of opportunity, and 84 Lumber is a company of opportunity.

While 84 Lumber got a lot of positive feedback, it generated a lot of negative feedback, too. Many said the company should have spent the $15 million on paying the taxes and health care for illegals.

Others cancelled their building orders. Hashtag #boycott84Lumber began.

It only takes minutes to get a political hashtag trending. (Image Source: Twitter)

But this is one of the few times when negative publicity seemed to work. A big chunk of the country has now heard of 84 Lumber due to the fact its commercial drew a political line in the sand.

The times, they are a-changin'…

Usually, small brands looking for instant attention are the ones that court controversy.

But these days, big brands are getting starting to get political.

Coca-Cola chose to re-broadcast a 2014 Super Bowl commercial just before the big game in 2017.

Showing people of all colours and languages singing America The Beautiful, Coke was making a statement about inclusiveness.

Many people didn't like the ad, tweeting: "We don't want foreigners singing our anthems!"

But Coke's CEO said Trump's policy was contrary to the company's core beliefs and values.

As the Financial Times stated recently, the politics of products has become a flashpoint in a polarized marketplace sparked by the election of Donald Trump.

People are now using brands as a mechanism to fight each other. Political stances are becoming political lances.

As a result, shoppers are demanding that brands state their purposes so they can pick sides.

The Millennial generation is particularly interested in a company's moral code. Where do you source your materials? How do you treat your employees? Where do you stand on immigration?

Brands are now feeling the pressure to be part of the cultural conversation. But it's easy to take a nasty misstep.

Recently, Starbucks instructed its baristas to write "#RaceTogether" on every coffee cup to promote racial harmony.

A different kind of hashtag. (Image Source: UERweb)

The company has long stated its willingness to wade into contentious issues.

But "Race Together" completely backfired.

It was lampooned for being a superficial, empty gesture by the corporation - one without any real initiative behind it.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said the hashtag was intended to start conversations about race.

But both Starbucks haters and customers took to social media to ridicule the gesture, and #RaceTogether began trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons.

Starbucks needed to wake up...and smell the coffee.

So when President Trump announced the recent immigration ban, Starbucks took initiative.

Like Airbnb, Starbucks conducts business all over the world.

The Starbucks siren can be seen in 40% of the world. (Image Source: mapsmania)

With locations in 75 countries, including Mexico – where they've sourced their coffee for over three decades – the corporation announced it would hire 10,000 refugees worldwide over 5 years.

A huge promise.

Schultz, who openly supported Hillary Clinton, said that the company would: "neither stand by, nor stand silent, as the uncertainty around the new administration's actions grows with each passing day."

But once again…Starbucks was met with a backlash. This time, #BoycottStarbucks began trending.

One person tweeted:

Yet another hashtag erupted on Twitter. (Image Source: twitter)

That same month, the company's brand perception plummeted by two thirds, dragging sales down with it – suggesting that the initiative wasn't well received by all of its customers.

Political activism is risky business.

As I've said before, a principle isn't a principle…until it costs you money.

Some corporations have come out against the Trump administration's policies – not in the form of commercials – but rather with statements from company leaders and founders.

Others chose to quietly disassociate themselves from the Trump name.


It all began with the #GrabYourWallet campaign – a grassroots movement aimed at getting corporations and retailers that carry Trump products (or have Trump ties) to "Dump Trump" by urging consumers to boycott.

Among the retailers on that list: Hudson's Bay. Which led to the term: "Baycott."

Since the Grab Your Wallet website launched in October, both Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus have dropped Ivanka Trump's label. A huge blow to the clothing and accessories line.

The retailers released similar statements saying they simply cut ties with their lowest performing brands annually. They framed it as routine.

It's a chicken and egg situation. Either shoppers boycotted Ivanka Trump's brand, causing it to underperform. Or the retailers dropped the brand out of veiled political activism.

We may never know.

Macy's, on the other hand, cut ties with Donald Trump's brand in direct response to the negative comments made toward Mexicans during his campaign.

The department store, which has been especially focused on winning over Latino shoppers, announced they were discontinuing the Trump menswear collection – a label they've sold for almost 15 years.

Donald Trump then tweeted:

This time, Trump called for the boycott. (Image Source: Twitter)

Google, Twitter, Coke and Ford all voiced their disapproval of the immigration ban. Saying the policy went against their company values.

And then there are the brands on the other side of the issue…

LL Bean faced a boycott when one of its family members personally funded Trump's campaign with a $60K donation.

Donald Trump was very vocal about his appreciation of LL Bean's support. (Image Source: glamour)

When a VP for New Balance sneakers mentioned he supported Donald Trump because of his position on TPP – or the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement - people responded by encouraging a boycott of New Balance. Many even posted videos of themselves burning their sneakers on social media.

Then, Nike released a statement condemning Trump's immigration ban.

That, of course, prompted Trump supporters to respond saying New Balance made a much better sneaker than Nike anyway, getting behind a #BoycottNike hashtag.

People today demand to know if they are buying red or blue, liberal or conservative products.

Because in this day and age, all it takes is a hashtag for consumers to Grab Their Wallets.

Then… there was the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial.

The backlash was instantaneous.

Let's begin with context.

People are marching for some very serious reasons and standing up for their beliefs more than ever today. Many viewers were outraged that Pepsi would co-opt meaningful protests as a commercial theme.

Many couldn't believe Pepsi would cast Kendall Jenner in a protest storyline – saying she had zero credibility.

Nor could people actually believe Pepsi would cast its own product in a role where it saves the day against a possible clash with police. The link between protesting and the product was non-existent.

Pepsi yanked the spot within hours. Social media rained down on the soda company with a vengeance.

Yikes. (Image Source: twitter)

Everything about the commercial seemed tone-deaf. Add to that the fact it was released on the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Prompting his daughter Bernice to tweet a photo of her father being pushed back by police, adding: "If only daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi."

Pepsi responded saying they believe in the legacy of Dr. King and meant no disrespect. Pepsi then stated:

Even seasoned brands can drop the political ball. (Image Source: twitter)

It was a telling scenario. Pepsi was trying to take a political stand. The protestors in the commercial were multi-cultural. Resistance was the theme. But the execution was ham-handed.

It was a surprising choice coming from the usually savvy Pepsi. I noticed that the commercial was produced in-house. There was no advertising agency involved. I think the commercial suffered for that. There was no objectivity. No one to say whoa, this isn't a good idea. Pepsi was inhaling its own exhaust fumes.

Saturday Night Live gleefully did a parody four days later and it was almost impossible to find a single supporter of the ad online.

SNL put Cecily Strong on the job. (Image Soruce: mirror)

The Kendall Jenner/Pepsi commercial stands as a cautionary tale.

If a big brand like Pepsi could make such a breathtaking mistake, it shows how risky political marketing can be...

As we enter this new era of marketing, a question burns at the heart of the matter.

Is it safer for a brand to linger in the shadows, or it is smarter business to declare itself politically?

The answer may be that brands no longer have a choice.

The public has begun to ask where a company sits on the political spectrum. People are becoming increasingly insistent on spending their dollars with companies that share their values.

And if a company is going to use marketing to oppose a policy, there has to be a clear link between the protest and the product. Airbnb stands for strangers welcoming strangers, so its commercial didn't ring false.

Kendall Jenner for Pepsi – not so much.

Then there's the other worry. Will a company risk the direct retribution of the Commander-In-Chief?

It happened to the Smothers Brothers, as Nixon's administration put pressure on the network to drop the show. And President Trump isn't afraid to rally his base to boycott a company.

It appears more and more that politics and brands are clashing. And you are the company you keep…

…when you're under the influence.