Insights Blog

March 16th, 2017

When Brands Take A Stand: How to Stand for Something and Not Fall for Anything

Author

Ace Metrix

It’s no wonder many brands are feeling compelled to join the national conversation following one of the most divisive election cycles in American history. Regardless of where you source your newsfeed, it’s been practically impossible to avoid the onslaught of celebrity posing and pontificating, the powerfully vocal (and some suggest paid) protesters, as well as the continued petulant behavior of the press and the President, the left and the right.

So in this environment, what’s a brand to do? Much has been written about consumers, particularly millennials and gen z’ers, wanting their brands to stand for something more. However, in such an unsettled atmosphere, what’s the best way to take that stand – and still be standing in the end? In fundamentally intolerant times, brands that take too hard a stance or stand too far to the left or right risk alienating half the population — and up to half of their customers as a result.

Throughout the 2016 election, we tested over 600 presidential political ads (both digital and television), and read over 286,000 viewer verbatims. We can unequivocally confirm that very few opinions were swayed by any of the ads; in fact, more often than not, these ads simply caused the opposition to dig their heels deeper against the candidate. Pre-election day, we conducted original research that revealed just 10% of the U.S. population fell into the category of “Swayables” — those whose decision on whom to vote for was in flux and could potentially be convinced in either direction.

Today, we take a look at 2017 brand advertising across all categories and analyze ads that attempted to walk this social commentary line to discover how and where it was crossed, as well as when it was embraced. For advertisers, four key takeaways below:

1) Tread lightly.

When examining the success of “social stand” ads, brands seeking to avoid partisan positions and attempting to build a consensus on hard-to-argue topics met with more success. In the chart below, “issue” ads generally focused on more politically-oriented themes that were part of the past election dialogue (such as immigration):

Ads focused on inclusiveness (nine ads) or gender equality (twelve ads) averaged well above advertising norms as a group for capturing viewer attention, likeability, watchability, relevance, and taking a new tack with consumers. On average, the group fell below the industry average on polarity, with 92% of ads on air reporting more viewer disagreement. The best of the best were not polarizing at all as they focused simply on human kindness and hope, where the message was viewed as the single best thing about the ad (and visuals worked together to drive the message).          

Top Inclusiveness Ads:

Advertising Norm   YTD 2017 549 633 599 571 40th
Brand Ad Title Format/Length Ace Score Attention Score Change Score Relevance Score Polarity

Percentile

Procter & Gamble #WeSeeEqual Online 1:40 718 778 739 749 2nd
Revlon “Love Is…” TV :30 666 734 687 710 2nd
Cadillac Carry TV :60 641 748 651 706 4th

On P&G’s “#WeSeeEqual”:

“i loved this ad. it was all these wonderful clips that were heartwarming and loving and fun. some i have seen before in different commercials but they all gave me that knot in my throat and some a tear to my eye. i love the message that the ad is sending. very powerful.” Female 36-49

“I LOVED that ad. It made me tear up multiple times. I am so happy to see so many diverse groups represented and knowing that P&G celebrates equality makes me so much more apt to purchase their products.” Female 21-35

“I think it is important for companies to treat all qualified individuals equally regardless of race gender or anything else. I love that this ad communicates that about this company.” Female 36-49

“A great emotional moving ad by P&G showing the importance of life and the relationships we have. I loved the seriousness of this uplifting ad.” Male 21-35

On Revlon’s “Love Is…”:

“i loved this ad, and the positive message it presented. it was warm and funny, and even a little thought-provoking. i liked that it was done in black and white, which made the logo in bright color at the end really pop.” Female 36-49

“it speaks to all of us on a human level. it reminds us of the importance of personal connections, especially when modern technology often keeps us at arms length” Male 21-35

“Spreading the message of love is one of the most important things anyone can do. For that alone, I would consider buying the products due to its stance on love.” Male 21-35

“It is a great ad with a great message. The representation of the company in this commercial was excellent and I love what it stood for!” Female 21-35

On Cadillac’s “Carry”:

“This advertisement made me stop and watch. It made me remember. I was inspired to think of all of the times that as Americans we have worked together, and I am energized to continue that trend. It is refreshing to see something that is not all about selling a product, but selling an idea of togetherness.” Male 50+

“The speech used for the ad was really well written and really helped go along with the visuals to show that Cadillac has had a long history with the USA” Male 21-35

“i loved the visuals. it’s great to see the good in people. we have too much negativity in the world today. it’s great to see the good in people.” Male 36-49

“I really liked this ad. It was simple and touching and definitely caught my attention. The message was nice and should be spread around more.” Female 21-35

Top Gender Equality Ads:

Advertising Norm   YTD 2017 549 633 599 571 40th
Brand Ad Title Format/Length Ace Score Attention Score Change Score Relevance Score Polarity

Percentile

Microsoft #MakeWhatsNext: Change the Odds Online: 1:30 685 756 724 677 2nd
Microsoft #MakeWhatsNext TV :60 671 730 717 662 2nd
Audi Daughter TV :60 666 734 697 668 2nd
Mattel Dads Who Play Barbie TV :90 641 751 706 648 6th


On Microsoft’s “#MakeWhatsNext” ads:

“I absolutely loved this. I think it’s important for girls of all ages to know that they are capable of any career, regardless of whether it has traditionally been a male-dominated field. It’s important for people, in general, to follow their passions and know that they can evoke change. I thought this was a thoughtful and inspirational advertisement.” Female 21-35

“i really liked this ad. it shows real kids wanting to fix very real and important problems, such as disease. i really admire these kids and the confidence and heart they have. microsoft is helping with a very important program here. the ad was very heartwarming and promising for our future.” Male 36-49

“it really drew me in and kept me interested. i wanted to find out what the girls would say. i could relate to it because they are other people who have dreams like me. the scenes and camera angles were great. loved the white backdrop. and technology shown was awe-inspiring. the music was nice too, made it “moving”. Female 21-35

“the girls in the ad were absolutely beautiful and their young enthusiasm was inspiring. i agree with everything they said, i share their vision and i pray for them to be agents of change to recreate a hurting world. i wish i could get my hands on one of those virtual reality goggles.” Male 50+

On Audi’s “Daughter”:

“I like that this company is standing behind equal pay for both men and women. The message is very strong to me because I tell my daughters that I look at people as human beings, not men and women, and they should not settle for less than they deserve as a human.” Male 36-49

“I couldn’t love the message of the ad more. It is 100% pertinent to the climate of America today and goes about it in an honest and relatable way. I also think the cinematic visuals of the ad are stunningly beautiful. Love. Love. Love” Female 21-35

“Everything they said in the ad is true. I can relate to this message and love that you all are putting it out there.” Female 21-35

On Mattel’s “Dads Who Play Barbie”:

“I can’t like this ad more!! One of the most positive, most uplifting ads I’ve seen in ages, with a really powerful message, not just for girls, but for the dads who love them. I really appreciated the fact that it’s not just mom’s & daughters (though that’s important too…), but finally dads are getting the respect and recognition they deserve. Moreover, the level of diversity was good (though…no asians?). Really loved this empowering message. It’s been a long time since I saw an ad that cared more about the message than the product, which makes me actually want to support the product. Hell, I don’t have kids and I’d buy a barbie because of this ad!” Female 36-49

“as a dad of now 2 grown daughters, i can relate to the message of the importance of being active in their lives. they’re only little for alittle while. and it’s important to not just teach our daughters their worth. but show them by actually investing in/spending with them even if barbie isn’t your thing lol. i thought the message of this brand was very effective and show they are going in the right direction.” Male 36-49

“It was so wonderful and heartwarming to see fathers playing with dolls with their little girls! I also love the fact that these little girls were allowed to just be little girls and play with dolls — it’s important to let girls know that they can do anything to which they set their minds, but also important to acknowledge that that doesn’t mean that they have to be just like the boys.” Female 21-35

“several things: Dad’s who play invest time with their daughters are COOL, That girls can play with dolls to stimulate imagination, and that Barbie isn’t just some “dumb blonde.” Barbie can be a role model for girls because their imagination can fuel their reality.” Female 36-49

2) Beware of vested interests and pandering.

Some brands that saw less success even with a unifying theme did so because they had a vested profit interest in the missive or poor brand synergy – and viewers found the messages self-serving or “preachy” more than inspiring. While the ads were not failures by any means (achieving or beating industry norms), they clearly didn’t work as hard for the brand as the winners. The absence of “walking the talk” caused the messages to be received much more politically:

Bottom Inclusiveness Ads:

Advertising Norm   YTD 2017 549 633 599 571 40th
Brand Ad Title Format/Length Ace Score Attention Score Change Score Relevance Score Polarity

Percentile

Hyatt For A World of Understanding TV :30 560 668 618 580 65th
Nike Equality TV: 90 567 668 589 613 50th
Airbnb We Accept TV :30 588 682 596 678 40th

The Hyatt and Airbnb ads have been criticized for being too self-serving in the theme that if people are more accepting, it would lead to more travel opportunities. Nike was criticized for being hypocritical in its “equality” stance by largely ignoring non-African Americans as well as having unfair employment practices in parts of the world. Clearly, even ads about inclusiveness can be divisive.

On Hyatt’s “For A World of Understanding”:

“I like the message of unity but it feels as though it is pandering and brings up a political issue that brings up really negative associations.” Female 21-35

“What does the message of this ad have to do with Hyatt? You expect your hotel to be caring and treat you well when you’re in unfamiliar territory, it shouldn’t be optional? And was that some sort of response to Donald Trump here, in the ad’s message? I can’t be sure, but the idea is offputting and surely would keep me out of any Hyatts in the future!” Male 36-49

On Nike’s Equality ad:

“This is complicated for me – Let me explain, the single greatest & also single worst thing about this ad is the message. By that I mean I obviously agree with the message for equality, but at the same time I personally feel it to be more than a bit emotionally manipulative. I’m not sure what Nike’s policies and affiliations are so I can’t actually tell if this is a sincere company statement or something to make some cash. An undeniably classic brand with obviously all-star pitchmen/women.” Male 21-35, Caucasian

“this was very racial sensitive and for me is not appropriate. the commercial was done with well meaning behind it, but was a big turn off for me. it made me feel singled out, like it was aimed at a different race than my own” Male 21-35, Hispanic

“i do not agree with this ad.. it talks about equality but features only blacks.. where are the white people. i find this ad to be racially biased. and would not purchase based on this ad.. if you want equality then focus on having all nationalities and not exclude whites.” Female 36-49, Caucasian

On Airbnb’s “We Accept”:

“Shameless, shallow attempt to exploit the current divisions in our country” Male 50+

“I HATED this ad..enough with telling us how to think and act..people are tired of it.” Female 36-49

Bottom Gender Equality Ads:

Advertising Norm   YTD 2017 549 633 599 571 40th
Brand Ad Title Format/Length Ace Score Attention Score Change Score Relevance Score Polarity

Percentile

Benetton United by Half TV :60 563 667 596 606 65th
Brawny Breaking Barriers TV :30 576 704 640 604 40th


On Benetton’s “United by Half”:

“It gets your attention, but at the same time you are continuously waiting to see what it is actually about. It would appear to be about some sort of equal rights campaign; never guessing it was about clothing.” Female 50+

“I thought it was visually appealing,good music. However what it had to do with the product? No idea.” Female 50+

On Brawny’s “Breaking Barriers”:

“I do not see the connection between courageous women and Brawny. Of course if the message is only women clean and use Brawny then it is a terrible example of chavinism.” Male 50+

“loved the message…strength has no gender however, how could these powerful and brilliant women be compared to a paper towel????” Female 50+ 

3) Choose a cause clearly connected to your business.

The best (of the thirteen) issue-related ads so far this year did just that. They took up a cause directly related to how they operate and used strong visuals to cement that link. Land O’ Lakes sources from farmers, Kia advertised its eco model with an “eco warrior,” and Panera Bread now serves 100% real food:

Top Issue Ads:

Advertising Norm   YTD 2017 549 633 599 571 40th
Brand Ad Title Format/Length Ace Score Attention Score Change Score Relevance Score Polarity

Percentile

Land O’ Lakes The Farmer TV :60 674 757 701 672 2nd

 

Kia Hero’s Journey TV: 60 655 797 710 602 2nd
Panera Bread 100% Certainty is Rare TV :30 650 704 672 696 5th

This is a consistent theme we have seen in the past where brands align to philanthropic causes. Brands that execute with a logical connection to the cause are more successful—case in point, P&G’s Dawn ads that support wildlife, and Tide’s “Loads of Hope” campaign to provide laundry services for disaster ridden communities.

On Land O’ Lakes’ “The Farmer”:

“i love the focus of the farmer – i didn’t realize land o’lakes was farmer owned. i live in a rural area, so i feel like i probably think about the farmer more than people who live in the city. i feel like this commercial would be a wake up call for the city dwellers, and it gives them a way to connect to nature and support the people providing our food.” Female 36-49

“I really liked the music and cadence of the rhyming poem about the farmers. Didn’t realize it was for Land O’ Lakes products until the end when the logo was shown, but showing the farmer and the child gives the impression that Land O’ Lakes is making quality products from good ingredients grown by hard working Americans with families.” Male 21-35

“i enjoyed the entire ad. visually appealing and speaks to me personally as i have many friends that are farmers. i am more likely to purchase the product now that i know that the company is 100% farmer owned.” Female 36-49

“Made feel proud to be American. with all the news of wars we forget the farmer is the back bone of our country. It really was nice to see the shots of our beautiful farm land.” Male 50+

On Kia’s “Hero’s Journey”:

“i really appreciated how the company humorously incorporated contemporary environmental issues with its products enhancement (eco-mode) all with a self-deprecating and light-hearted take. my impression was very positive. i enjoyed watching the ad and it made me feel optimistic: not only that there was a car company promoting these issues with a sanguine outlook but also acknowledging the anxiety they cause.” Female 21-35

“you picked the best actress to be a part of your commercial. that was so funny. not only did it bring attention to several causes that people are passionate about but it brought attention to your car as well. this is one of the best car commercials i have seen in a very long time. should have been a super bowl commercial. hope i see it on super bowl sunday.” Female 36-49

“i thought it was hysterical. at the same time, i did realize how versatile the vehicle that they were advertising is.” Female 36-49

“Learned about the ECO model. Nice blend of product promo and fun stuff.” Male 50+

On Panera Bread’s “100% Certainty is Rare”:

“From the beginning it had my attention. I wanted to know what the commercial was about and what was going to be advertised. Very appropriate topic and ad because our food and the ingredients in it will probably always be a topic in the news and around the world. Better, REAL and healthy ingredients lead to better and healthier lifestyle. Really liked this ad.” Female 21-35

“Thank you for sharing that the brand does not use any processed foods. It targets many consumers – including me – since many people are looking for a cleaner way to eat food. At first, I did not like all the mystery meats, but now realize that it was completely necessary for the ad.” Male 16-20

“I thought it was very informative and it really got my attention as far as the junk that I have put into my body. I like that it showed the processed food process versus clean food…great commercial….it tells/shows alot of truths about our food” Female 36-49

“I like how it makes me question whether the products I use are made with artificial additives or not. Makes me wonder what the additives are doing to my body” Male 16-20

4) Steer clear of polarizing politics and tell a complete story.

Most brands are not trying to be overtly political and pick a partisan side. But this can happen accidentally when an ad produces unintended viewer backlash. Viewers don’t want to be told what to think, so even with just a hint of a hot button cause from the election as a theme in your ad, you stand to lose. Viewer reaction to the New York Times “The Truth is Hard” was some of the most polarizing on record. As with political ads, this did little to change opinions, but just caused further entrenchment. Similarly, 84 Lumber annoyed both by being political and pointless to viewers. Even Budweiser’s recent ads showing its founder’s story of emigration from Germany may have generated some unintended consequences with some viewers as a result of the current social climate.

Bottom Issue Ads:

Advertising Norm   YTD 2017 549 633 599 571 40th
Brand Ad Title Format/Length Ace Score Attention Score Change Score Relevance Score Polarity

Percentile

84 Lumber The Journey Begins TV :90 421 612 497 409 75th
New York Times The Truth is Hard TV :30 493 659 537 604 96th


On The New York Times’ “Truth is Hard”:

“the style and pace of this ad is like a nervous bombardment. it made me feel anxious in a bad way and made me want to not favor whatever brand it ended up being for — in this case the new york times. i do not want to be told what to think in a rush of statements.” Female 36-49

“The ad is too controversial and dark for most audiences. It was too serious for the product. It should appeal to all audiences, ages, political views, and genders. Disliked the visual effects. Was not eye-catching or interesting at all” Female 21-35

“i think it is a disgusting downer on president donald trump again. i am so sick of this poor advertising. what is america coming to. a disgrace if you ask me. no respect whatsoever. start showing our president respect!!!” Female 50+

“i think it is too much for the times, we need to stop being so aggressive and let the new president and congress learn to work together. the press is out of control. sorry nyt” Female 36-49

“i don’t think that they should have engaged in this argument. it seems to me that they are preaching to their own audience, and that they won’t change any minds with this ad.” Female 50+

On 84 Lumber’s “The Journey Begins”:

“i liked the ad in the beginning wasn’t quite sure what it was trying to portray. when i realized it was about illegal immigration, it turned me off completely. why would a company use an ad like this, given the current controversy over the order of president trump. not good.” Female 50+

“I really had no idea where this was going and still have no idea what this was about.. I couldn’t wait till it was over!!” Female 36-49

“not sure what it had to do with 84 lumber. seemed to be supporting illegal immigration, if so, will no longer purchase from 84 lumber” Male 36-49

“I have no idea what this advertiser is advertising except their website where you can watch the end of the ad. The fact what little dialogue there was was in spanish annoyed me and I had no idea who these people were, what they were doing or why I should care.” Male 21-35

“Confused about what the ad is for. what does it have to do with lumber? thought it had something to do with Trumps wall.” Female 50+

 

In an era where even “motherhood and apple pie” messaging potentially sparks a wave of protest, brands need to show extra restraint. In fact, the most polarizing issues leading to the poorest ad performance were immigration and fake news — and preaching without walking the talk. The least polarizing issues linked to the most successful ads focused on equality, be it gender equality or inclusiveness of all. Indeed, American viewers appear more than ready to put the election behind them and move on to a greater good.

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