The pros and cons of mixing advertising with politics

Once upon a time, most brands would have steered well clear of politics in their advertising. Not anymore.

Diesel Make Love Not Walls

Diesel has released a new ad campaign. Shot by David LaChapelle, it is titled Make Love Not Walls and features a multi-coloured tank sizing up to an imposing concrete barrier. Elsewhere young, fashionable folks are shown climbing through a heart-shaped hole in the wall. The campaign is cheeky, provocative, and in the context of President Trump’s plan to build a wall between the US and Mexico, really quite political.

The fashion brand is one of a flurry of advertisers that have recently thrown themselves into the political ring. During the Super Bowl this year, brands from building supplier 84 Lumber to 10 Hair Care to Budweiser took on the politics of the day in their ads. For Bud, this apparently was something of an accident though presenting a tale of immigration during the current climate undoubtedly sees the brand taking up a position. Elsewhere Nike took up the cry, releasing a new ad this week titled Equality, which calls for the attitudes of fairness we see in sport to be taken into the wider world.

Diesel Make Love Not Walls
Diesel Make Love Not Walls campaign, created by Anomaly Amsterdam and directed by David LaChapelle

Advertising usually exercises caution when entering into controversial ground. Culturally, as an industry it is a follower, not a leader, tackling ‘issues’ only when it has been established that it is safe to do so. The recent trend for ads celebrating feminism or female empowerment, for example, only really took off after a new feminism movement was already gaining ground.

Looked at this way, brands using political messages in their ads clearly see it as a way of connecting with an audience already vocally dissatisfied with Trump. While from the outside, it might appear that brands taking this position are potentially ostracising an audience that doesn’t agree with their viewpoint, it makes sense for a brand like Diesel or Nike – whose target audiences are largely young and urban – to assume that these messages will be appreciated.

So what are the downsides? Well, firstly if everyone starts saying the same thing, any controversy that the brands might want to leverage is quickly diffused. When Benetton released its famously provocative poster campaigns under Oliviero Toscani in the 1980s and 90s, it was the only brand at it. Now, as more and more begin to use politics to sell, the power of the message risks being watered down.

Already there are signs that we are getting used to this technique. When the Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas ad featured a recreation of the famous Christmas Day truce between the trenches in 1914, there was an outcry, with the brand accused of being “dangerous and disrespectful” for co-opting suffering in the name of commerce. Yet, when Johnny Walker released a documentary telling the story of the Lesvos islanders who have helped hundreds of thousands of refugees, the film was hailed as “inspirational”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a sensitive, respectful telling of a story about an amazing group of people. But lurking behind it are still commercial aims.

With everyone thinking and talking about politics at the moment, it makes sense for brands to want to become part of the conversation. Whereas once advertising aimed to sell a lifestyle or status that was desirable but perpetually out of reach, brands now want to show how similar they are to us, how they share our opinions and understand our struggles. They want to be our friend.

Whether you want to accept this friend request is of course up to you. For me, no matter how well-meaning and sensitive the ads might be, brands using very recent political turmoil for commercial gain feels uncomfortable, and it concerns me that the very real, complex struggles taking place might get diluted by branding.

But despite this, as with all ad trends, I sense there will be more of it to come.

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