How Brands Avoid and Embrace Political Controversy

On the 8th October 2016 footage was released of Donald Trump in 2005 crudely bragging about groping women without their permission. One unlikely victim of the video was the breath mints company, Tic Tac. The President Elect referred to his use of the product as a vital precursor before he “just starts kissing them. It’s like a magnet. I don’t even wait.” Deciding that they didn’t want to be associated with such behaviour, Tic Tac released a tweet: ‘Tic Tac respects all women. We find the recent statements and behaviour completely inappropriate and unacceptable.’

The Candy Wars

It is unlikely that anyone watching that video would have accused Tic Tac of disrespecting women, but the company’s immediate rebuttal shows the need for a brand to keep their reputation clean from political controversy.

A further problem however is the divisiveness of modern politics. Once a corporation is dragged into a muddy political argument, it becomes extremely difficult for them to escape it. In many ways it is a Catch 22. In ignoring the debate they risk having their reputation smeared by unpalatable worldviews. Wading into the argument, however, forces them into taking a political stance.

By claiming Trump’s behaviour is at odds with their company values, Tic Tac may have gained respect on one side of the debate, but may have alienated the millions of Trump supporters on the other.

Here lies the many pitfalls of mixing brands with politics. 2016 has been an especially bad year for it. Wrigley’s Skittles were dragged through a similar Trump-esque confrontation when Donald Trump Jr tweeted a picture of the popular candy with the caption, ‘If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.’

Syrian Refugee Skittles ImageIn response, Denise Young, vice-president of corporate affairs for Wrigley America, issued a statement: “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it is an appropriate analogy.” This was followed by an onslaught of tweets of pictures of Syrian refugees (mostly children) with the caption, ‘Not a Skittle.’

Arguably, the recent rise in brands having to distance themselves from abhorrent political views could be a symptom of the digital age. Social media outlets Twitter and Facebook have given vast platforms to political campaigners whose views were once confined to the margins of society.

When broadcasting to millions, it is not surprising that these divisive campaigners use the reputation of popular brands to boost their own credibility. Everyone recognizes and loves Skittles, and that’s why they were used for a damming analogy of refugees. The problem is that corporations have no choice in whether their reputation is being piggybacked or not.

Embracing Controversy

But is there no such thing as bad publicity? The 2005 video has reached millions of views on YouTube and the Skittle brand was bandied round the whole of Twitter in the wake Trump Jr’s tweets. Being caught in a political nightmare might actually be good for business.

In Britain, some brands have actively pursued political stances, often at the risk of angering their consumer base. Tim Martin, chairman of pub chain JD Wetherspoon, commissioned 500,000 beer mats expressing anti-EU sentiment across his expansive pub chain. More recently, Martin has threatened to stop selling European drinks unless EU leaders stop “bullying” Britain in Brexit trade deals. All in all, Martin spent £224,000 campaigning for Britain to leave the EU, only to have £18 million wiped off the value of his shares the day after the Brexit vote.

On the other side of the spectrum, political campaigners have been forcing corporations to take more responsibility for their political ramifications. Toy giant Lego recently pledged to stop their corporate relationship with right-wing British paper the Daily Mail after pressure from Stop Funding Hate, a campaign aimed at preventing divisive newspapers from receiving advertising funding.

Although Lego has received praise for their display of principles, they have also been accused of neglecting free speech and trying to influence the free press. Conservative Party MP Andrew Bridgen, for example, said, ‘Lego can place their advertising where they wish, but with the free press no company should expect their advertisements to influence a newspaper’s editorial content or line.’

Changing Times

It is getting harder and harder for brands to separate themselves from the political chaos we see happening today. With an increasingly politically conscious consumer base, companies are at risk of splitting their fans and alienating potential customers. It seems, then, that politics should be a no go area for a company if it wants to be perceived in a positive light by both the left and the right, liberals and conservatives.

However, it goes beyond that. For better or for worse, brands continue to use their considerable following to influence the political fabric of society. The current political climate means that corporations will have to continue to defend their values and define where they stand, even if it means no longer sitting on the fence.