How Should Brands Adapt to a Post-Truth World?

There’s a viral video making the rounds on Facebook with all the standard trappings of a Christmas advert: emotive music, idyllic festive images, and a soothing typeface. But even though we’ve reached the point in the year when people start talking about which Christmas ad has successfully pulled at their heartstrings, this clip isn’t from a retailer looking to attract shoppers; it’s for a grassroots campaign aimed at influencing brands.

The video comes from Stop Funding Hate (SFH), a group that launched in August to pressure companies to stop advertising in three UK newspapers—the Daily Mail, Daily Express, and The Sun—which have been publishing “divisive hate campaigns” against minorities.

In four months, SFH has attracted over 210,000 likes on Facebook, which serves as its main platform. Thus far, the group has already helped influence LEGO, which recently announced it stopped advertising in the Daily Mail. The Co-operative Group, a British collection of wholesale and retail businesses, hasn’t officially pulled its business, but its ad plan for next year is “under consideration.”

(Full disclosure: LEGO is a Contently client.)

By contrast, John Lewis, another big brand targeted by the campaign, remains unmoved, despite the apparent support for SFH from some of its workforce. A statement issued by the company said: “We fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue; but withdrawing advertising on the basis of editorial coverage would be inconsistent with our democratic principles which include freedom of speech and remaining apolitical.”

Similarly, Walkers, a snack food manufacturer, has reportedly refused to stop advertising in The Sun, even though brand endorser Gary Lineker, a sports broadcaster and retired English footballer, has publicly supported the SFH movement. “Our advertising approach is not determined by the editorial stances of individual newspapers,” a Walkers spokesperson told Marketing Week.

Where do brands stand if they’re unsure how to proceed? The Oxford English Dictionary classified “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year, but do brands have a responsibility to engage in an increasingly polarised political debate?

Dr. Mario Campana, lecturer in marketing and consumer behaviour at Goldsmiths University, London, pointed out that companies walk a tightrope in these situations. They can respond to pressure groups like SFH and risk alienating some customers, or abstain from action and look like they’re alienating other customers.

“It’s as though consumers are recognising that it’s brands, and not politicians, that can make change,” Campana said. “Brands are the ones with the resources and they are the ones that can make a change, for example, by not funding particular newspapers. But brands also have real relationships with consumers. If they are perceived to be doing the wrong thing, people can feel personally let down.”

While a large corporation like LEGO, which isn’t based out of the UK, might be able to afford to take a stand by ending relationships with a relatively niche section of the European press, a treasured British brand like John Lewis is more restricted.

The important detail to note here is that consumers are the ones exerting pressure through SFH. A core team of 12 volunteers runs the Facebook page and decides which brands to target, but it’s the thousands of Facebook users who engage with the page who actually drive the movement, writing to brands and posting messages. In the case of LEGO, a very personal video message posted by a dad ultimately persuaded the company to listen.

Ultimately, the key is consistency. Last month, the apparel and shoe brand New Balance found itself at the centre of a social media storm in the U.S. when it first issued a statement supporting President-elect Trump. But after backlash, the company sought to distance itself from the controversy by describing itself as a “values-driven organization and culture” that “does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form.”

“In that case you have a brand that has never been political that then entered the realm of politics and was met with a huge backlash,” Campana said. “The imagery of the brand is very powerful. These decisions have to be consistent with the brand.”

But Richard Wilson, the activist and author who co-founded Stop Funding Hate, argues that corporate decisions about advertising come down to ethics, not politics. “We are not asking companies to make an editorial judgement, but an ethical judgement, because of the impact this coverage has on society,” he said. “If a huge company is giving money to a publication which is running dehumanising articles that contribute to a climate in which hate crime is becoming more likely, then how they spend that advertising budget becomes an ethical issue.”

There are plenty who disagree. On The Spectator, a journalist called SFH “a sly, sinister effort to chill and tame the press,” while Spiked referred to the campaign as “possibly the most middle-class attack on the free press ever”.

The “freedom of the press” argument holds no water for Wilson: “Yes, everyone can make their own choices about which newspapers they buy, but there are lots of people who don’t want their shopping bill to subsidise these hateful messages.”

Brands might struggle to walk the tightrope, but you could make the case that they created the conditions for it in the first place. “Brands have always created mythologies that draw consumers in,” Campana said. “If you think of the classic Marlboro man cowboy, people are not just buying a product or service, but the imagery too. Now we see politics adopting the language of marketing and brands. Political marketing is a huge industry and politicians like Trump are evoking masculine, nationalistic imagery to resonate with voters.”

The SFH Christmas video, which went live in November, now has over 8 million views on Facebook. Perhaps that suggests grassroots organisations can beat brands at their own game. Either way, it is tough for brands to try to connect with consumers while staying removed from political and ethical controversies. In the UK, you could say they’re now facing the moment of truth. Or, more accurately, the moment of post-truth.

Image by Unsplash / Viktor Forgacs

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