How Can Brands Respond To Political And Social Issues Responsibly?

The recent kerfuffle over the exceedingly unfortunate CNN cutaway to an Applebee’s ad featuring a dancing cowboy, which aired right next to footage of war-torn Kyiv, is just the latest example of ads behaving badly -- but in this case, it wasn’t entirely the ad’s fault. Unlike spots that have been criticized for being out of touch or in poor taste (Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad, we’re looking at you), the ad itself wasn’t the problem so much as the terrible timing of its placement.

In any case, this incident is yet another reminder that in today’s light-speed media world, brands need to be hyper-attuned to current events and accompanying sensitivities. Brands also need to be prepared to review in-market ads promptly, pull potentially problematic content if possible, and consult with a trusted PR agency before making public statements on any platform.

A More Holistic Strategy

Marketers and brands have an ethical responsibility to think about how their messaging lands, especially in times of conflict and crisis. Here are a few guidelines that can help:



1. Be human. Brands always want to take advantage of opportunities to increase awareness (and sales) of their products and services. But when it comes to incorporating current events into advertising, the line between acknowledging events and taking advantage of them becomes very thin indeed. So take off the marketing hat for a moment, evaluate the situation from an empathetic human perspective, and try to guide ads and marketing materials accordingly. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? Not at all. Budweiser’s moving tribute to 9/11 during the 2011 Super Bowl is a mini master class on getting it right.

2. Be authentic. Being true to one’s values -- individual or brand -- is deeply important to the current and upcoming generations of consumers. As socially engaged digital natives who are also savvy to marketing tricks, millennials and Gen-Zers want to know where their favored brands stand on important issues. If, for example, a company puts out statements about supporting its workforcebut has a track record of treating its own employees poorly, customers do take note. Now more than ever, brands need to focus on walking their talk.

3. Be aware. There probably isn’t much that either Applebee’s or its marketing agencies could have done to have avoided the cowboy-dancing-while-Kyiv-burned debacle, but the incident highlights once again that ads are rarely, if ever, seen in isolation. They are always in proximity to something else -- often news stories or other types of journalism. Maybe it’s time for media buyers and sellers to talk about more foolproof brand-safety strategies. Applebee’s may have been the latest misstep, but it surely won’t be the last.

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