The 89th Academy Awards will soon be upon us and if the final of the trifecta of awards shows follows the path of the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, politics will be present in this year's ceremony. Although the 2016 Oscars did reach an eight-year low in terms of viewership, the award show still remains the second-most watched TV event, so the question for brands looking to reach the estimated 34+ million viewers will be how can they engage in this current dialogue, if at all, without losing authenticity?
The stakes around brand engagement in politics right now have never been higher — the spoils, potentially, but also the risks. And timing is everything — just look at Budweiser's Super Bowl ad. The beer maker found itself in the midst of a backlash with a campaign telling the story of its immigrant founder. That said, it also generated 8 million online views, and 95,000 mentions on Twitter through the next morning. On one hand, it's hard to argue it would have won more engagement at any other time. But by the same token, the obvious, and overriding question is — will all that attention ultimately result in an increase in sales?
For all the discussion around the Budweiser ad, Airbnb's 'We Accept' Super Bowl spot was, if anything, far more overtly political. In tandem with its airing, CEO Brian Chesky tweeted a pledge to provide short-term housing to thousands in need as well as a multimillion-dollar donation to the Red Cross. And yet, so far at least, no major backlash.
When it comes to activism and causes, brands that talk the talk, without first perfecting the walk, risk losing authenticity. Still during the Super Bowl, Audi's ad advocated equal pay for women, creating an opportunity for social media users to co-opt its #DriveProgress hashtag and cast attention back on the company's own corporate structure.
As well as timing, therefore, advertisers engaging with politics must consider all manner of other factors; not just how their outlook aligns with their audience's views, but also how it fits with their own company culture.
Campaigns with a political flavor carry their own share of risk and unpredictability. That said, brands already well versed in the volatility of social might well say the dangers are table stakes — and long-term, those risks are outweighed by the rewards.
Dove is one brand fearless enough to take such a step. Using the #alternativefacts hashtag, it took out press ads listing improbable statements, like the IQ-improving effect of its cosmetics, advertising tied to political commentary to humorous and eye-catching effect. But how such a campaign might have gone down in the U.S. will (at least for now) remain a mystery, since it only ran in the UK.
The question persists, especially in the present climate, whether brands can successfully champion a cause without blowback. And can they genuinely claim to do so for altruistic reasons? Regardless of how you answer, the one certainty is that activism can sell.
Going back to the Oscars, let's recall Leonardo DiCaprio's climate change-themed acceptance speech last year. Now imagine the same, this time delivered alongside a new commitment to sustainable practices by a range of brands. It could have been big last year — but just picture the coverage in 2017.
A template for Oscars brand success, Ellen DeGeneres' Samsung selfie two years ago will be difficult to beat — a stunt said to have been worth up to $1 billion. Could we see another big example of product placement this year — maybe even one bringing stars, social media and activism together for the first time? Some would say it's the perfect time for such a tie-up. And for the brand that gets it right — a mantelpiece full of statuettes awaits.
But to those who get it wrong, an empty awards cupboard could be the least of their worries.