Advertism: when did brands become our moral guardians?

September 21, 2018

It was the campaign heard around the world. This month, Nike secured coverage in the world’s most prominent media outlet, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, after it launched a new, controversial campaign. Their black and white close up of Colin Kaepernick featuring the tagline ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’ found an international audience despite its American theme, the extreme reaction it generated meaning waves of fresh headlines are still breaking in the press. Nike’s ad has caused at least two US colleges to end business with them and sparked a #JustBurnIt trend on social media where those angered by the brand’s support of the ‘Take a Knee’ movement showed themselves setting fire to merchandise they owned.

It’s easy to feel cynical about this latest example of ‘advertism’ – advertising activism – where brands appear to piggyback on well-established social movements in order to ingratiate themselves with consumers. Although not many companies would attempt to directly court a president’s antagonism it was a calculated risk: adverts are designed to appeal to already existing sentiments, not generate new ones. And it’s a risk that already seems to be paying off, aside from the mass press coverage, with reports suggesting Nike sales were up 31% following the Kaepernick ad. How much did the sports giant sacrifice?

But Nike’s move is just one in a long line of socially motivated campaigns by big brands. In a world where technology has made us more connected to people and issues around the globe than ever before, and in a time of unprecedented international challenges, social responsibility has rocketed to the top of the agenda. This year’s stand-out PR Cannes entries were those aligning themselves with social change, from Nissan’s #SheDrives, where Saudi women were given ‘driving lessons’ by husbands and close male relatives following the country’s lifted ban, to LadBible and Plastic Ocean’s ‘Trash Isles’, which saw the plastic in the North Pacific Ocean seek UN recognition as an independent nation. For brands, it’s becoming more political not to be ‘political’, particularly when last year’s Edelman Earned Brand Study suggested 57% of consumers buy or boycott a brand based on social or political stance alone. And if we buy products to affirm something about our own identity then in this changing world all brands will have to become advertists, as their entire target market wishes to believe themselves socially engaged.

Although these campaigns may feel uncomfortably opportunistic (don’t forget the end goal hasn’t changed) this intersection between product and politics represents an important shift. With presidents acting like CEOs of their incorporated nations and international politics in freefall, brands are positioning themselves as political actors. Where Trump pulls out of Paris, LadBible steps in to reinforce climate change awareness and the reaction triggered by Nike reminds a world audience that America (amongst other countries) has failed to address police injustice. Though brands don’t have the ability to legislate, they’ve increasingly found themselves as powerful lobbyists in an effort to impress consumers who care.

So, how should we feel about brands becoming our moral guardians? It’s important to remember that advertism is ultimately a reactive endeavour and that real change in society still comes from the people – we should think of such campaigns as historical markers rather than social instigators. They represent a shift in mainstream thinking because, ultimately, businesses are only ever seeking to increase their popularity and market hold. We mustn’t fall into the trap of outsourcing political action to multinationals because social change is not their designed purpose.

And if brands want to act like politicians then they should expect the same treatment and to be held to higher levels of account. If you want to take the moral high ground on one issue then you need to make sure the rest of your messaging and company policies are beyond reproach. Nike’s critics were quick to question its ethics in production as well as promotion, referencing their reported use of sweatshops in Asian countries. The very tools brands use to spread their message are the tools for a backlash, with social media quick to point out where they’ve got it wrong (Pepsi being the obvious example being drawn on). If you’re positioning yourself as a moral mouthpiece then you’d better have a comms team as well-prepped as the Cabinet’s.

In the scrabble to join this new wave of advertism, brands should remember that with great power comes great culpability.