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Most companies prefer not to take strong stands on controversial issues, for fear of alienating consumers on the other side. Why protest something that has nothing to do with the brand, if doing so will risk sales, profits, and even the firm’s survival? The answer is that in the modern world, marked by divisive debates about nearly every national issue, companies can no longer avoid making some sort of statement.

Consider, for example, the NFL protests and the ensuing controversy. Companies that advertise during NFL games are forced to address whether they support the players, protesting persistent racial discrimination in the United States, who take a knee during the national anthem, or whether they take the side of the President and others who consider the peaceful protest un-American and unacceptable. Either position could cause controversy, leading some consumers to either boycott or buy more from a company, based on how it responds.

The need to establish a position on controversial topics extends even further, especially among companies seeking new ways to reach consumers through social media. As we have discussed previously in these abstracts, some companies are horrified to find that their advertisements appeared embedded within violent, racist, or controversial content on YouTube. Facebook continues to develop its corporate position when it comes to advertisers that might want to target users on the basis of offensive personal identifiers, such as a company that seeks out white supremacists to sell products to them.

Part of the reason for this changing expectation is simply that in today’s environment, no one can avoid making some sort of statement, and that includes companies. But it also has to do with shifting expectations of the roles of companies relative to government agencies or other traditional sources of authority. Widely shifting views, in which government is no longer a trusted source of support or information, lead people to focus more on companies. Moreover, advertising exerts a powerful influence on public opinion, so companies have the power to direct the conversation.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why are companies making more political statements in their marketing?
  2. Do you think that companies should be making political statements in their advertising?

Source: Sapna Maheshwari, “Bowing to the Inevitable, Advertisers Embrace Advocate Role,” The New York Times, October 1, 2017

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