Socially, politically charged advertisements illustrate shift

April 18, 2017

When Uber turned off surge pricing during the Jan. 28 JFK airport protest in an attempt to increase traffic and breakup the protest against President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, the hashtag #deleteuber began trending almost immediately. Following this event, Uber’s competitor Lyft, another ride service, announced their donation of $1M to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years – a civil liberties advocate that works to legally protect people’s rights. Lyft released an official statement on their website that read “This weekend, Trump closed the country’s borders to refugees, immigrants, and even documented residents from around the world based on their country of origin. Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values.” Lyft’s response combined with the trending animosity towards Uber lead to an increase in its customer base. According to The Guardian, following the protests and #deleteuber hashtag, Uber announced a $3M dollar fund dedicated to defending drivers affected by Trump’s travel ban.

I think that, when done in a thoughtful manner, these ads can be incredibly powerful in positive ways.

— junior Sorcha Ashe

This event represents more than simply a change in people’s methods of transportation, but a general shift in what the American population wants in the companies they support; sex doesn’t sell anymore, but social and political statements do.

“I have noticed in recent years that companies seem to be making a conscious effort to correct and replace the  image of the “ideal” in their ad campaigns, and to appeal to important social issues,” said junior Sorcha Ashe.

Although sexualized advertisements filled with beautiful, well-dressed people still definitely exist, the most effective form of advertisement during this politically heated climate are ones that align with the viewers’ sociopolitical opinions. Some examples include when Mattel, the corporation that produces Barbie toys, released advertisements of dads playing Barbie with their daughters in early 2017 to openly defy gender expectations. Diesel, an Italian clothing company, released an ad campaign in February with the theme “make love not walls” following Trump’s announcement of his plans to construct a wall on the US’s southern border with Mexico. Other examples include the numerous Super Bowl advertisements that touch on sexual orientation, race, immigration, among other issues. 

“I think that, when done in a thoughtful manner, these ads can be incredibly powerful in positive ways: for instance, the Barbie ads, in addition to a series of Dove ads advocating realistic female beauty standards,” said Ashe.


Pepsi’s attempt to support protesters in recent commercial faces backlash and support

Although politically charged advertisements can effectively expand a company’s consumer base, when carried out improperly they can negatively impact that company’s image. For example, Pepsi recently released an advertisement, and even more recently pulled it from airing that was accused of appropriating Black Lives Matter. In it, a group of protesters move down the street; Kendall Jenner notices them passing and happily decides to join in after pulling off her wig and wiping off her lipstick. Soon after she jumps into the throng of people and notices them moving towards a police barricade, she grabs a Pepsi and works her way to the front until she’s facing the officers. She looks at one of them, moves closer, and hands him a Pepsi. He accepts it, takes a sip, and the crowd cheers.

In response to the advertisement, freshman Martha Slaven stated that “Marches are a bunch of people getting together to fight for what they believe in, not some party.”

Many people took to Instagram, Facebook, and mainly Twitter to voice similar frustrations with the ad that trivialized the adversities such as police brutality faced by protesters, specifically the Black Lives Matter group. People felt that the ad showed numerous years of fighting for equal rights and representation for African Americans being solved by Jenner – a privileged celebrity – with the simple act of handing an officer a Pepsi.

“I noticed the Pepsi advertisement trying to use the BLM movement to gain support from liberal groups. It implied that soda is the solution to work issues, like police brutality … Kendall Jenner has millions of dollars that she could be using to  support the movement but, instead, she basically belittled the efforts of actual protesters,” said senior Hana Martinez.

Similarly, Ashe stated that “It’s an example of an ad that tried and failed to use a social movement to use a social movement to its advertising advantage because it did not seem to understand the gravity and deeply emotional aspects of the protest(s).”

Most of the public reacted similarly to Ashe and Martinez,; according to The New York Times, Pepsi removed the ad and released a statement soon after the backlash, stating that “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize.”

However, not all viewers noticed the negative aspect of this advertisement. For example, Brunell stated that “If I hadn’t heard that there had been controversy over it, I would have thought it was just another ad.”

According to an article by Fortune, despite the overwhelming negative response towards the ad felt all over social media, 44% of people polled by a Morning Consult Survey stated that they “had a more favorable view of Pepsi after watching the ad.”

This example with Pepsi provides a clear example of the complexities and nuances around politically charged advertisements that can make or break a company’s profit. Yet, the examples of successful advertisements, carried out correctly and respectfully, outweigh these ones that missed the mark.

Advertisements lean liberal and all companies must monitor political connotations of content

One striking theme throughout all the ads, regardless of effectiveness, are the target groups. The advertisements mentioned thus far tend to lean liberal. “The socially and politically related ads I have seen have all been fairly liberal. It might be different for a more conservative person,” said Ashe.

There are also companies that get dragged into the debate whether they want to or not. Avocados From Mexico’s new ad … has been inadvertently politicized by President Trump’s suggested tariff on Mexican imports to pay for a border wall.

— Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic

Since most ads support more left-wing sociopolitical views, criticism from more conservative groups is an aspect of the advertising discussion that many liberals may not see. For example, during the Super Bowl, Budweiser aired an advertisement showing Adolphus Busch, the co-founder of Anheuser-Busch (a brewing company), immigrating to America from Germany. According to The Atlantic, the company didn’t intend for the ad to depict intense pro-immigration sentiment or for it to be a response to the recent rise in xenophobia. While many praised the advertisement, conservatives responded similarly to those who disliked the Pepsi commercial.

The response to Budweiser’s commercial brings to light another aspect about the changing world of advertising: due to the current divided and tense political climate, regardless of a company’s intentions, their ads will be looked at through a political lens.


For example, journalist Sophie Gilbert wrote in an article for The Atlantic that “…There are also companies that get dragged into the debate whether they want to or not. Avocados From Mexico’s new ad, timed to coincide with the biggest night of the year for the fruit, has been inadvertently politicized by President Trump’s suggested tariff on Mexican imports to pay for a border wall.”

Not only do companies actively making opinionated commercials need to understand the political base they’re targeting and the issue they’re representing, but all companies must consider the content they’re publishing for any controversial political framing.

Effectiveness of politically charged commercials in sparking change questioned

Stepping back and looking at these ongoing changes in media, it’s important to question the effectiveness and impact of these advertisements. “We have seen how much damage harmful advertising can have, particularly on kids, so I don’t see why advertising for positive social change would not have just as large an effect,” Ashe said.

It is causing controversy instead of change.

— sophomore Jane Brunell

While, as Ashe stated, advertisements that align with majority political opinions can spread a positive message, it’s still questionable whether they can spark true change. A person watching an advertisement aligning with their views will feel proud and reassured, while a person with a differing opinion might just change the channel or ignore it. Also, while companies creating these commercials may truly believe in the cause they’re advocating for, their main end goal is to create a profit. Perhaps if the celebrities and corporations involved in creating these ads actively support the cause – for example, how Lyft donated money to the American Civil Liberties Union – then true good can come out of them.

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