Brands on Social Issues: Progressive or Performative?

In a world where social media has become a ground for activism, solidarity, and awareness, brands have been riding shotgun on the moment marketing bandwagon. Advertising campaigns on social media, and sometimes even traditional ones, often tend to circle around the social and political issues trending on the internet. Companies have made personal commentaries on these issues, particularly through their ad campaigns. Nevertheless, neither is it uncommon for these brands to express their views on current affairs nor is the momentary backlash they receive on these advertisements new. 

Advertisements have the power to make or break people’s purchase decisions. A study by Edelman, a leading marketing firm, shows that 65% of the consumers believe that brands can cause more social impacts than the government. Their purchase preferences are determined by the stance a brand takes on a particular issue.

Amul is one such brand known to always have bold and out of the box advertisement copies, often clarifying its stance on prevailing issues in the country. In 1976, the brand expressed clear disapproval of the sterilisation policy during the Emergency period. Recently, they stirred controversy for commenting on boycotting Chinese products. Their satirical dialogues have never failed to draw attention and raise more than just a few eyebrows. Despite continuous warnings, Amul has stood unafraid in putting out witty copies.

Many brand strategists have weighed in on what could be considered an advertisement of “bad taste”. Some ponder over the traditional principles of advertising, which serves only as a means of alleviating product sales and brand awareness. While many have advised brands to stray away commenting on sensitive political or social issues, some surprising studies show that consumers prefer brands to have a “voice” on controversial political or social issues. This, however, doesn’t stop the mass uproar a poorly executed advertisement could cause.

“Hitting the Target”

The recent campaigns and movements on Twitter are pushing to support the inclusivity of all marginalised communities. Many brands have expressed their solidarity with “feel good” television advertisements. One of the famous advertisements from Vicks showed Gauri Sawant, a trans woman activist, as a mother. It hit the adequate balance of questioning Trans rights in India while also unearthing the gender-based stereotype of motherhood. Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad campaign was a hit in every household, as it highlighted the idea that house chores are not relative to just women of the household. 

Whisper’s Touch the Pickle advertisement was featured as one of the top campaigns of the world and even won Glass Lion at Cannes. It highlighted the taboo associated with menstruation that still exists in some conservative Indian households. Such progressive outlook favours the majority of the brand’s target audience. 

A much sensitive area to target an advertisement could be where the political or religious inclinations of the advertisement are obvious. There is already a type of cause marketing which addresses political situations with ease. Tata Tea’s Jaago Re campaign left a very strong impression on every Indian’s mind. It tapped into every Indian age group to spread awareness against corruption in the country, without facing any backlash whatsoever. However, we have also seen brands biting more than they can chew. Several advertisements, if taken out of context, can cause serious controversy in the mass.

“Under the Scrutiny”

The most recent controversy that made it to Indian and international news was the Tanishq ad. The brand’s recent television ad that showed a baby shower born out of a Hindu-Muslim marriage polarised Indians across multiple spectrums, with people associating the same with the idea of “Love Jihad.” Much to their realisation, Tanishq has always taken a progressive stance in its brand campaigns— putting out advertisement copies about LGBTQ+ community back when Section 377 failed to be decriminalised in 2013; television advertisement displaying stories with second marriages; series of spots on women empowerment, and much more. The brand made it clear that it has supported and celebrated coming together of different communities without any underlying agenda behind it. Many have been sceptical of the brand’s innocence towards realising the current situation of the country. Others have criticised their move of removing the advertisement due to just trolls on the internet. 

The internet has always shown the worst sides of people. With rising political and communal tensions, it becomes harder for brands to remain neutral. One tweet by Zomato saying, “food has no religion” received more negative criticism than it should have. The tweet was a reply to a customer who refused to take their delivered food parcel from a Muslim delivery boy. The savage comeback was well received, despite some hateful comments on Zomato taking a “leftist stance” on the issue. Zomato made sure to comment back, saying that they are not afraid to lose customers that come in the way of their values. Brand strategists tend to view such companies positively when they do not back out of their own stances. 

Airbnb had released its ‘We Accept’ campaign right after President Trump signed an order to close America’s borders to refugees temporarily. It received heavy criticism as Airbnb previously did not take action against its owners who were racially profiling the customers. People saw this commercial as their way of gaining support back. Since then, the company has a no-tolerance policy against discrimination. The hate did not last long as Airbnb promised to provide short-term housing for 100,000 refugees, disaster survivors, and other displaced people over the next five years. Additionally, they planned to donate $4 million to the International Rescue Committee over the next four years.

The infamous images of leaders locking lips with each other featured the Pope and an Imam, Chavez and Obama, Merkel and Sarkozy, Hu Jin Tao and Obama. United colours of Benetton had launched a campaign to support the “UNHATE Foundation,” which was also started by the Benetton group. It led to the beginning of a vast conversation which had struck as bizarre and got intense backlash for the brand. The Vatican city had decided to take serious action against the further distribution of those images as it violated many beliefs. Similarly, many people took to different platforms voicing their opinions and calling it a publicity stunt. Benetton broke its silence with “These are symbolic images of reconciliation – with a touch of ironic hope and constructive provocation – to stimulate reflection on how politics, faith, and ideas, even when they are divergent and mutually opposed, must still lead to dialogue and mediation.” Many came out to support the campaign, the brand has been known for such shocking campaigns, but they haven’t endorsed any products using it. 

Even though it may seem these brands had taken a step too far for advertising their products, it still benefited their cause considerably, and later were acknowledged for their achievements.

“Bad Taste”

The German company, Nivea, posted an ad campaign for a deodorant on Facebook that was supposedly aimed at the Middle Eastern market with the slogan “White Is Purity.” The caption following the post —“Keep it clean, keep bright. Don’t let anything ruin it, #Invisible.” After receiving intense backlash for these racist connotations, Nivea quickly took it down and apologised, claiming their brand doesn’t represent these values. Many prominent brands have been under fire for such discriminatory campaigns.

Dove, another major personal care brand, came under fire for posting a 5-second clip on their social media handles to promote their new product. The ad featured a black woman who turns white after using their advertised product. Glow and Lovely, which was rebranded from Fair and Lovely, has historically been promoting products in a manner that looks down on people of colour. It has a series of skin-lightening products that promote negative stereotypes surrounding darker skin tones.

Considering all these brands being industrial giants in personal care products, showing absolute insensitivity and failing to recognise what influence their social media campaigns have on society have left people questioning whether companies should promote their products through such campaigns. These particular brands have been in such controversies previously and have also supposedly recognised their mistake and apologised. Recently multiple companies have now banned using the words — fair, skin lightening, white — in their products.

One of the most infamous failed social media campaigns was the Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner back in 2017. It showcases Kendall Jenner noticing a march outside her photoshoot. She proceeds to join the protest with the “people from all walks of life” and ends up diffusing the rally by handing a can of Pepsi to the police officers who were there for crowd control. The ad ends with people of different ethnicities cheering for her and getting an appreciative grin from the officer. 

This, for obvious reasons, did not hold well with anyone as it single-handedly downplayed protests which were going on, black anti-police-violence and the Vietnam War protest. People were outraged about the inconsiderate nature of the ad towards the real horrors of these protests. The portrayal was a complete contrast of what happens in real life, claimed by activists. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., who has a history of being involved in protests, tweeted, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” Many people expressed how distasteful the commercial was, leading to the commercial being removed by Pepsi. 

Endorsing Products using Social Issues: Is it Justified?

Ultimately, it leads us to question whether companies should advertise their products using social causes and how much they devote to the issues they used to promote their products, whether it is just performative activism. In recent years, significant companies taking political standings have become a norm giving them the room to convert their campaigns to movements. As a business catering to a broad audience, participating in a discourse that affects a considerable part of society plays a crucial role in spreading awareness. Once brands start gaining benefits out of it, their intentions become questionable. With the surge in businesses approaching activism, the consumers also have started noticing their brands’ political stance as they feel more inclined to purchase from companies that are at par with their thinking. Hence opting out of social media activism does not keep the brands out of criticism either. 

Genuine social media activism, which is backed by concrete actions and donations as seen, can fire up the movement, bring attention to the cause as well as bring out a lot of positives for the stakeholders. Hence it cannot be deemed all bad or merely a publicity stunt. Watching brands taking such a stance and solving problems resonates more with the people, thereby promoting their products at the same time. If such advertising campaigns are creating a stir and urge the change required, they might not be in bad taste.

Written by Anushka Shrivastava and Anwesha Bhattacharjee for MTTN

Edited by Radhika Taneja for MTTN

Featured Image by Anjali Santhosh for MTTN

Other Image Sources: BBC, Social Samosa

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