Sign of the Times: Is Apolitical Unacceptable?
We’re living in charged times and brands took notice in a big way in 2018. Some, like Nike, made a bold statement when they made Colin Kaepernick the face of their new advertising campaign. The move garnered headlines and record-breaking sales in the weeks that followed. Others, like Taylor Swift, succumbed to mounting public pressure and, in the days leading up to the 2018 midterm election, endorsed specific candidates in her home state of Tennessee and encouraged her 112 million followers to register and vote. These decisions, which likely weren’t made on a whim, beg the question, is it unacceptable for big brands to remain apolitical in 2018?
In March of 2003, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines came under fire for incendiary comments about then-president George W. Bush on the first stop of their international Top of the World Tour. Irony aside, one could argue that the Texas-based band has never fully reclaimed their footing within the music industry due to the controversy that followed. The statement pales in comparison to the dialogue we see today but Maines and crew were told to just, “shut up and sing.” That would become the title of the 2006 documentary that chronicled the incident and tumultuous years thereafter. 15 years later, Lebron James partnered with Showtime to release Shut Up and Dribble, a three-part documentary inspired by James’ own experience with fallout from voicing his own political opinions.
On the flip side of things, Taylor Swift remained largely silent throughout the 2016 presidential election and received a lot of flack for her decision in not sharing her political persuasion. Her silence ended up having the opposite effect, as it was perceived by many as an endorsement of a particular value system. That all changed on October 7, 2018 when she announced who she intended to vote for in the 2018 midterms and detailed the reasons why. Her post stunned many and has been attributed to more than 150,000 new voter registrations on Vote.org.
In a discussion with Fast Company in early 2018, Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario said, “This isn’t the time to be lazy, to be reserved, to be complicit, to be quiet. We’re living in a time when it’s so important for business to drive this new economy, this new view, this aspirational future of business as a force for good.” At the time, Patagonia was known for it’s commitment to environmental responsibility and often referred to itself as “The Activist Company.” They took their approach a step further with the midterm elections when they endorsed specific candidates in Nevada, where their global distribution center is located.
Brands and public figures are making more pronounced statements than ever before. Whether it’s true conviction or a bid to stay relevant is up to consumers to decide. For example, Pepsi was slammed for a tone deaf ad featuring Kendall Jenner that encouraged viewers to simply, “Join the conversation.” The company pulled the ad a day after it was released and released several apologies, including one directed at Jenner for involving her in the controversy. The ad didn’t stand for anything and instead featured a generic message that piggybacked off of other, more serious topics of discussion. Where Pepsi faltered, other companies with longstanding campaigns in social activism, like Ben & Jerry’s, can announce a flavor called Pecan Resist, championing “a movement to lick injustice and champion those fighting to create a more just and equitable nation for us all,” while donating $100,000 to progressive causes and watch sales increase.
Perhaps the question isn’t whether apolitical is unacceptable but, to borrow from Patagonia’s Maracario, is lazy unacceptable? With the sheer amount of noise and the speed at which it travels, consumers don’t have time for brands inserting themselves in conversations they didn’t bother to do the research for. Nike addressed a controversial topic and took a stance without even addressing it by name. Brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia engage with political, moral, and ethical causes in an ongoing manner. Taylor Swift, Lebron James, and Colin Kaepernick share their beliefs and can stand behind their convictions when checked. There’s a right way to engage your brand in politics and a lazy way.