Keurig and the challenges of remaining non-partisan in a polarized marketplace

Being truly apolitical is no longer an option.

An opinion piece in Ad Age argues that brands should remain non-partisan and should avoid “steering clear of right-leaning sites.” It depends on what you mean by “right-leaning sites,” but that’s now easier said than done.

A case in point is the Keurig coffeemaker, which was one of five brands to pull ads from Sean Hannity’s Fox TV program after his controversial interview with Alabama Senate candidate and alleged child molester Roy Moore. Hannity unmistakably created a platform for Moore to discredit his accusers and rehabilitate himself. The program was effectively an extension of Moore’s campaign and messaging.

The danger in continuing to support the Hannity program was that some of these brands would be seen as implicitly condoning Moore’s alleged actions (child molestation). How’s that for a brand association?

After Keurig (and others) pulled sponsorship from the program, viewers sympathetic to Moore or loyal to Hannity started destroying their Keurig machines and posting the videos on Twitter, some with the message, “Offend a liberal.”

This may be an extreme case, but it’s also increasingly representative of the state of American politics and the challenges for brands. In many cases, remaining indifferent to politics (as the Ad Age piece suggests) may be tantamount to supporting causes and beliefs that are way outside the mainstream (e.g., hate speech, sex crimes). That’s partly because American politics has become much more polarized, and principles are often being sacrificed to tribalism.

Activists on the left and right have made it a tactic to publicly embrace or boycott brands on the basis of their actual or implied affiliation with specific causes or positions. White supremacists and those on the right have embraced a range of brands (e.g., Papa John’s Pizza, New Balance shoes and others) and sought to boycott Kellogg’s, Starbucks and Nordstrom, among others, because they’ve taken positions opposed to Trump or his administration’s policies.

Indeed, the election of Trump, the corresponding rise of the far right and a more activist left have made it virtually impossible for brands to avoid politics. Brands have become targets of political pressure. The left sees public shaming and boycotts as a way to influence policy at a time when government is unresponsive to their concerns.

Furthermore, in this polarized climate, more consumers want to shop brands that share their ethics and beliefs. And Trump himself has trolled brands he doesn’t like for one reason or another. The situation has become much more fraught and complex.

The Ad Age piece proposes a solution and a way forward: “Focus on the consumer behaviors that are linked to outcomes more closely than the political bent of a site on which an ad appears.” For mainstream sites, that’s good advice. But there’s danger in being unwittingly identified with unsavory or extreme viewpoints through passivity (e.g., Hannity’s advertisers doing nothing).

At a time of brand peril like this, companies must be vigilant. We may never return to an era where brands can truly be “non-partisan” or apolitical in the broadest sense.

Brand safety is a huge issue right now. Regardless, it’s good for business for brands to take ethical positions on important issues — I’m not talking about endorsing candidates, I’m talking about not supporting hate or criminal conduct.

It’s not really a question of left vs. right; it’s a question of principle.

About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog, Screenwerk, about connecting the dots between digital media and real-world consumer behavior. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.


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