Mixing marketing with activism

In recent weeks, Iceland has come to attention for its Christmas ad, which was banned from being shown on television by Clearcast, the body responsible for deciding if ads can be broadcast on television or not, for supposedly being too political. The ad tells the story of an orangutan who has lost his home to deforestation at the hands of the palm oil industry, and comes with a pledge from Iceland to remove palm oil from all of its own-brand products by the end of the year (it can be watched here).

The decision of Clearcast to ban this ad demonstrates that mixing marketing with politics is pretty controversial, although the response to the ad perhaps shows how effective it can be; since it was first shared, the ad has been viewed over 30 million times, and a petition on change.org to allow the ad to be aired has amassed 670k signatures.

Arguably, mixing marketing and politics has become more and more common. Nike recently received a mixed response to its decision to use an image of Colin Kaepernick (who came under fire for kneeling during the American national anthem in a protest against police brutality) with the tagline, ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’ While many praised the campaign, it also received backlash from those who considered it too political, with its fiercest opponents choosing to burn their Nike shoes as a protest. In fact, the hashtags #JustBurnIt and #BoycottNike trended on Twitter in the days after the ad.

With a negative response like this, it can be argued that getting political has a real cost for companies. And yet, despite the backlash, Nike’s sales increased by 31% in the weekend after the ad launched. Perhaps, if done correctly, mixing marketing with activism can give corporations a more human face that appeals to consumers rather than alienating. Studies have shown that while only 42% of British people think brands should take a stance on social issues, with the majority not particularly caring, many consumers do want to ‘trust the brands [they] interact with’. If a brand’s views align with a consumer’s views, they are more likely to support the brand, creating an appealing reward for companies that get political.

Nonetheless, if you are thinking of mixing your marketing with activism, tread carefully. People may like and trust a brand that shares their stance, but only if it is genuine. Be careful not to bounce off current issues in a way that seems inauthentic and exploitative, as this will surely alienate your target audience – for example, after the immigration ban in America sparked a taxi strike at JFK Airport, Uber tweeted that they would be turning off surge pricing, with some seeing this as an attempt to break the strike and cash in on the crisis.

There is a fine balance between risk and reward when it comes to mixing marketing and activism. If you can find that balance, or are willing to take the risk to stand up for what you believe in, it can pay off well. Though, of course, if you really believe in your cause, then the gain you can make from vocalising your support shouldn’t matter all that much! At the end of the day, it’s up to you to weigh up the pros and cons, and decide what’s really important to you.