It’s a divisive time in America. There are many emotionally charged social and political issues that are constantly being discussed and debated. As demonstrated by Pepsi’s recent protest ad and almost every 2017 Super Bowl commercial, it can be tempting for brands to jump on the bandwagon and join the conversation and benefit with sales – but should they?
Using a social movement to sell potato chips or soda often is seen as an insincere move by marketers. It tends to trivialize issues that are highly meaningful to people. Saturday Night Live hilariously exemplifies and exaggerates this “absurdity of causes as commerce” in a Cheetos ad-pitch comedy sketch. The comedians or ‘Cheetos ad executives’ discuss potential advertising spots centered on current social issues like immigration and transgender issues. They also poke fun at how disconnected these executives are from the issues they’re discussing. When the executives are questioned about using transgender issues just to sell Cheetos one of them exclaims, “We care about that issue because there is a guy in our office whose son is transgendered!” Then she turns to her colleague and questions, “Or wait, is he trans or adopted?” to which the colleague replies, “Uh, he’s adopted.” She then says, “That’s right, because we don’t know anyone trans, and THAT is the problem.”
And that fake Cheetos executive is exactly right; a lack of understanding and connection to audiences is precisely the problem. Often these brands are not only using important social issues to sell products, but the higher-ups creating the ads are totally out of touch with the issues and target audience. This was clearly the case in the absurdly offensive Pepsi ad, where a can of soda delivered by model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner cheerfully ends a protest that’s reminiscent of recent Black Lives Matter protests. If only the marginalized people of America thought to bring a can of Pepsi to their protest; then all of their issues would be solved and the protest would have turned into a happy moment of unity and cheering – please…
Social issues can represent an opportunity to really connect with a target audience if marketers are smart about how they do it… Clearly, Pepsi (and their ad agency) didn’t check in with anyone who was actually at any of those protests before airing the ad and it’s unlikely that there was a diverse team of any kind making these creative decisions. The lesson is simple and should be basic knowledge for any advertising, marketing or PR professional – know your audience.