How brands are responding to the divisive politics of 2016

As brands including Kellogg’s, Lego and John Lewis are drawn into highly contentious political debates, Marketing Week considers the challenges facing brands in a turbulent era.

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Right-wing website Breitbart has called on its readers to boycott Kellogg’s after the cereal brand pulled its advertising from the site

What does your brand really stand for? It’s the soul-searching question that companies around the world are starting to ask themselves as the global political climate becomes ever more fraught and divided. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election and the Brexit vote this summer have shattered the neoliberal consensus in the West, unleashing a wave of fear, uncertainty and extremist discourse.

In this context, many brands are finding they can no longer stand on the sidelines and avoid engaging in political debate. Companies across all consumer sectors – from Facebook in the US to John Lewis in the UK – are coming under pressure to clarify their brand values and take a stance on some of these highly polarising issues.

This week, Kellogg’s became embroiled in a public dispute with right-wing website Breitbart after deciding to pull its advertising from the news outlet. Breitbart has come under scrutiny since its former chairman Steve Bannon was made chief strategist to the impending Trump administration, with activists claiming that it promotes racism, misogyny and hate speech.

The cereal brand made the decision after an online campaign called Sleeping Giants showed a screen shot of a Kellogg’s ad on the Breitbart site, prompting customer complaints.

Kellogg’s says it pulled its advertising because it wanted “to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company”. In response, Breitbart has called on its readers to boycott Kellogg’s products, arguing that its actions “represent an escalation in the war by leftist companies… against conservative customers”.

Breitbart editor-in-chief Alexander Marlow said: “For Kellogg’s, an American brand, to blacklist Breitbart News in order to placate left-wing totalitarians is a disgraceful act of cowardice.”

This episode highlights the huge dilemma facing brands as they are confronted with having to pick a side in an increasingly hostile political climate. Kellogg’s felt it had to end all ties with Breitbart due to pressure from some of its customers, but it also risks alienating others who may subscribe to Breitbart’s worldview. Trump’s victory and the rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ community suggest that large swathes of the population have sympathy with at least some aspects of this view.

Online pressure

It may console Kellogg’s that it is not alone in taking these steps, with other brands like insurance firm Allstate, glasses retailer Warby Parker and broadband provider EarthLink also pulling their advertising from Breitbart. In addition, programmatic group AppNexus has said it will no longer provide its ad serving software to the site.

There are clear parallels between these US developments and politicised campaigns targeting brands in the UK. Last month, Lego announced via Twitter that it was ending an existing promotion with the Daily Mail and was “not planning any future promotional activity with the newspaper” following pressure from an online campaign called Stop Funding Hate.

Read more: How marketers can put social purpose into practice

The campaign has called on a range of brands including John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer to stop advertising in newspapers that it sees as promoting hate speech, particularly with regards to immigrants and refugees. It specifically accuses the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun of conducting “divisive hate campaigns”.

Lego took action after Stop Funding Hate alerted it to an open letter written by a father on Facebook who was concerned about the toy company’s links to the Daily Mail. His complaints included reference to the newspaper’s coverage of the High Court ruling that the government’s activation of Article 50 and hence Brexit will require the approval of parliament. The Mail drew criticism from commentators and activists for a front-page headline that called the judges ‘Enemies of the people’ and for highlighting in its coverage that one of them is gay.

Yet while Lego opted to sever ties with the Daily Mail, other brands have refused to acquiesce to the demands of Stop Funding Hate. A John Lewis spokesperson says that “we fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue” but that withdrawing advertising on the basis of editorial coverage “would be inconsistent with our democratic principles which include freedom of speech and remaining apolitical”.

The political stance of any news media should not come into consideration. In the UK we favour a free press and accept that not all media speak for us.

Ian Twinn, ISBA

Marks & Spencer, meanwhile, states: “We do not support or align ourselves to governments, political parties or ideologies and advertise in a wide range of media.”

Crisp brand Walkers has also refused to stop advertising in the Sun despite its brand ambassador, Gary Lineker, announcing that he had spoken to the brand about supporting the Stop Funding Hate cause. Lineker has been a vocal critic of tabloid coverage of the refugee crisis, but on this issue Walkers has declined to support him. A spokesperson says: “We have a very successful partnership with Gary Lineker and we will continue to do so. Our advertising approach is not determined by the editorial stances of individual newspapers.”

Brands and customers divided

Brands are clearly divided on how to respond to this new, politically charged environment. A statement from ISBA, the advertising trade body, reveals the split mindset between wanting to reach people of all political opinions on one hand, and protecting brand values through selective association on the other. As the political debate becomes more extreme and shrill, knowing where to draw the line is a slippery challenge that all brands must grapple with.

“Advertisers would want to avoid political gestures in buying ad space,” says ISBA’s director of public affairs Ian Twinn. “The political stance of any news media should not come into consideration. In the UK we tend to favour a free press and accept that not all media speak for us.

“Of course there does come a time when editorial content goes beyond any acceptable norm and action would be justified. A brand has significant values which are an important part of its existence – these need to be protected from harmful associations, whether it happens from news content on a site or accidental association, perhaps through programmatic buying of media. No one, other than the brand owner, can make that call.”

Brands that prevaricate and fail to articulate their values are already facing a backlash from some customers and staff. A video made by the Stop Funding Hate campaign, which has been retweeted around 29,000 times, notes that companies like John Lewis and Sainsbury’s trade on messages of morality and community values in their Christmas campaigns, but argues they abandon these values when choosing to advertise in newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Sun.

Protesters in London voice their anger at the press after the result of the EU Referendum this summer, which saw the UK vote for Brexit
Protesters in London voice their anger at the press after the result of the EU referendum this summer, which saw the UK vote for Brexit

Some members of John Lewis staff – known as partners due to its employee-ownership model – supported this complaint in the latest issue of the company’s internal magazine, according to a recent report by International Business Times. Responding in the letters page to the retailer’s insistence that it must remain apolitical, one partner asked sarcastically whether it would have no problem advertising in a newspaper published by the terrorist group ISIS. Another wrote: “Being associated with hateful newspapers is damaging to our brand and how the public perceive us. I do not want to be on the wrong side of this debate.”

Of further embarrassment to John Lewis was a statement by Vaults, the band that provides the music for the retailer’s Christmas advert this year, which came out in support of the Stop Funding Hate campaign. Stating that it was responding to messages from its fans, the band said “the idea by Stop Funding Hate to use the power of consumers to influence big companies to redirect advertising funds, seems to us a sensible way for the compassionate public to get through to these papers”. The band also announced it was donating funds to the charity Help Refugees.

Defending freedom of speech

Richard Wilson, an activist and author who set up Stop Funding Hate earlier this year, tells Marketing Week the campaign is “taking on a life of its own” as people around the world look to exert pressure on brands. He highlights the crucial role of social media in making the campaign go viral and says there are “helpful signs” that a number of other brands may soon follow Lego’s lead and end their ad deals with particular newspapers.

Wilson has also received messages from people in the US, Australia and mainland Europe about setting up their own campaigns against what they see as divisive media outlets in their own countries. “It feel like a lot of people are having the same sort of idea at the same time,” he says.

However, Stop Funding Hate has also faced criticism from some quarters that its actions represent a challenge to freedom of the press and amount to censorship. Spectator columnist Brendan O’Neill recently argued that the campaign is motivated by distrust and “even disgust” towards ordinary people and tabloid readers. “This is elitist, repugnant and illiberal,” he said.

Wilson insists that the campaign is not seeking to censor newspapers, but is rather trying to give a voice to consumers that disagree with their views. “If a customer of John Lewis chooses to try to influence that company to make a different advertising choice, that’s simply freedom of choice and freedom of expression,” he says.

“We’re not saying that the papers shouldn’t say these things – what we’re saying is that customers have the right to say ‘not with my money’.”

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Comments
  • Michael Dale 2 Dec 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Brands cannot have it both ways. They cannot on one hand claim values of honesty, integrity and fairness and then ignore where their advertising budgets are spent. If capitalism is to survive it needs a conscience.

    This is where we find out whether brands have true purpose and real values, and not those contrived and left gathering dust on the boardroom wall.

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