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Why are adverts becoming more political in the age of Trump and Brexit?

Why are adverts becoming more political in the age of Trump and Brexit?

It always pays for brands to make trendy adverts. Gone are the days of simply promising that their toothpaste or ready meal or trainer is the best – now we're buying products that align with how we want to be seen.

And what's trendy right now is social activism.

What with Donald Trump, Brexit, and world politics in general being so divisive, why are some brands making edgier political ads?

Marius Luedicke, an associate professor of marketing at City University in London, calls this cultural branding and says it's when “a brand positions itself either as an ally to solve a functional problem, evoke emotions, or solve a cultural problem”.

This year's Super Bowl ads seemed more political than ever.

Companies known for progressive campaigns like Coca Cola and Airbnb recut old ads to keep them as diverse as possible.

A seemingly anti-Trump ad from Budweiser was a little more surprising.

It carried a pro-immigration message, showing one of its founders travelling to the US to fulfil his American dream – to brew beer.

And so many people tried to watch the full version of 84 Lumber's ad, showing a Mexican mother and daughter on a journey to the US, that they crashed the building merchant’s website.

Its original ending was reportedly rejected by the Fox network for being too controversial, as the pair are faced with a giant Trump-esque wall.

We might expect this approach from Uber and Airbnb because the majority of their user base probably aren't Trump fans.

But who does political advertising work for, and who should stay away?

“The question is if the company is or is not directly affected by his policy, or if they are opposing Trump without a direct link,” said Luedicke.

“Both can work for the brand, but it seems more directly credible if they are affected.”

The Super Bowl cuts were in production long before President Trump signed his Muslim ban executive order. Fox has to approve them at the end of January, long before the game.

So how Trump-based were they?

“It seems like brands are subtly exploring the terrain,” says Luedicke.

Donald Trump
Which brand will tackle Trump next? (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

“They're using the moment to make a claim about what their beliefs are and what they're going to do and it seems to be working quite well,” Luedicke says.

But he doesn’t think they’re as boundary-pushing as they might seem.

“There are multiple ways of reading these ads and most of them have been quite careful,” he says.

“I think it's all been ambiguous enough for a Trump voter to still say: yeah, great!”

And it's not all about Trump either. We're having our share of political uproar in the UK too. Brexit, anyone?

Christmas adverts have to be heartwarming by law, but Amazon's seasonal ad showing the friendship between an imam and a priest was the multicultural antidote to a year marred by division.

Activism-themed branding has been around a lot longer than Brexit – but it may be the difficult political climate that’s making us interpret things differently.

Audi's Super Bowl ad had a strong gender equality message, which seems relevant what with Trump's moves to restrict reproductive rights and the huge women's march against him across the world the day after his inauguration.

“The idea of supporting women and equality is something that brands could have done at any time,” Luedicke says.

“But now on the back of Donald Trump, that sounds even more critical.”

After ads for beer and building supplies hopped on the activist bandwagon, will the trend for feminist, pro-immigration and diverse messages continue?

“It depends on how much [the companies] depend on Trump’s policies,” says Luedicke.

“If it's a domain where the brand’s operations will be affected, we would expect them to comment, but not to be as blunt as Donald Trump himself!”

And of course these brands wouldn’t turn to activism unless it made sense financially.

US marketing firm Fuse did research into Generation Z, who are just teenagers now, but the coveted 18-35 consumers of tomorrow.

They found that compared to just 70% of millennials, 85% of this younger group are likely to choose the one out of two brands that supports a social cause.

Don’t expect every firm to start churning out socially conscious messages, though.

Some will just be sticking with the line that their products are simply better than their rivals.

And could pro-Trump ads be on the horizon? Could companies try to capitalise on Trump’s nationalist rhetoric to sell their own goods?

“Part of the population would be very fond of a Trump-inspired advertisement. But we haven’t seen any of that yet and maybe that’s good news,” according to Luedicke.

A sign reading 'He will not divide us'
Adverts will bring us together (Jeff Chiu/AP)

There might be a bright side to living in the midst of such turbulent world politics – Luedicke thinks brands now have a great opportunity to make some really excellent ads.

“The more tension people feel about what’s happening around them, the more opportunities brands have to provide them with a bit of psychological relief.”

So difficult times are good for the advertising creatives. At least someone’s benefiting.

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