In today’s political climate, even pizza, bourbon and coffee can be partisan issues.
A year after the presidential election, a range of advertisers are learning that it doesn’t take much — sometimes just a single Twitter post — to land them in the middle of a social media firestorm that splits along party lines. In some cases, they land there even if they’ve done nothing. And it has become clear in the past month that long-used strategies for how brands should respond to the ensuing outrage may need rewriting.
Last week, consumers shared videos of themselves destroying Keurig coffee machines after the company said it would pull ads from Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, a decision based on the supportive comments the host made about Roy S. Moore, the embattled Republican candidate for Senate in Alabama. Earlier this month, the hashtag #BoycottJimBeam emerged after the actress Mila Kunis, a spokeswoman for the liquor company since 2014, said on “Conan” that she has been donating to Planned Parenthood under Vice President Mike Pence’s name in a form of “peaceful protest.”
And Papa John’s has been renouncing the support of white supremacists and apologizing for appearing divisive after its chief executive said on an earnings call that the National Football League’s handling of the national anthem controversy had hurt its pizza sales.
As the national conversation has become increasingly fractured, major brands have repeatedly found themselves in the middle of these kinds of controversies, often stoked by posts or comments on Twitter and Facebook. Such social media pressure has prompted brands to pull advertisements from “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News, after reports that Bill O’Reilly reached settlements with multiple women who had accused him of harassment, and from New York’s Public Theater’s production of “Shakespeare in the Park” that featured a look-alike of President Trump as Caesar. But seeming to take sides can have business implications as well, and companies are still struggling to adjust to the new normal.
“What I think is constantly surprising is how polarized and divisive, certainly, the U.S. has become,” said Ken Kraemer, the chief executive of the agency Deep Focus. Brands are shifting from a world where they avoided politics at all costs, he said, to one where younger consumers want to know that their “values are aligned.”
“This is something consumers and future consumers care about,” he said, “but then again, there are very real business repercussions for expressing those points of view.”
Often, such situations seem impossible to predict. The backlash against Keurig stemmed from a tweet by the company saying that it would pull ads from Mr. Hannity’s program after the host seemed to justify Mr. Moore’s reported conduct involving teenage girls by calling one of the encounters “consensual.” Mr. Hannity later said he “misspoke” though went on to discuss the possibility of Mr. Moore’s accusers lying for money or political purposes.
Keurig’s chief executive stood by the company’s decision in an email to employees, but said that sharing the information in a tweet was “done outside of company protocols,” and apologized for any negativity that employees endured from the “appearance of ‘taking sides.’” As the Keurig situation unfolded, some brands like Realtor.com and Volvo Car USA deleted tweets that said the companies were pulling ads from the show.
Because the public is so divided, any criticism of a brand tends to produce its own backlash. That dynamic is often visible on companies’ Facebook pages, which can turn into unlikely battlegrounds for political posturing.
That was apparent on Jim Beam’s Facebook page after Ms. Kunis appeared on “Conan.” She said on the show that her donations to Planned Parenthood in Mr. Pence’s name were “a reminder that there are women out there in the world that may or may not agree with his platform.”
As a clip of her appearance spread online, a #BoycottJimBeam effort began. At the same time, others expressed their support for the brand. A flood of comments appeared on various Facebook posts from Jim Beam, including a post about an event promoting a new vanilla-flavored bourbon. “I love Mila for taking a stand for women’s healthcare!!!” one woman posted on Nov. 8, adding, “She’s inspired me to buy my first bottle of Jim Beam!” Below that, another poster said that “due to Mila Kunis political stunt,” she would “no longer purchase your product!!”
Jim Beam has declined to comment on its partnership with Ms. Kunis.
Mike Proulx, chief digital officer of the ad agency Hill Holliday, said that companies have faced boycott threats for “as long as brands have existed.” While social media now enables consumers “to express their thoughts and opinions instantly, openly and publicly,” that doesn’t necessarily mean the amount of conflict is unprecedented, he said.
“The question back to all of us is — is it that different from what was happening in the 60s?” Mr. Proulx said. “Or other moments in history where tensions were very, very high?”
Boycott threats and advertising decisions have often provided some insight into the cultural battles playing out in the country. An article in The New York Times in 1963, for instance, reported that companies like Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive were casting more African-Americans in their ads because they feared losing business from potential boycotts. Still, one company received more than 2,000 letters protesting such casting.
In 1992, Sprint was asked if it would continue to work with the actress Candice Bergen who played “Murphy Brown” after then Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the character in a speech for having a son out of wedlock. And as recently as 2004, companies like Lowe’s dropped adds from “Desperate Housewives” because it was viewed as too racy.
Papa John’s found itself in unpleasant territory after John Schnatter, the chief executive, said on an earnings call that the N.F.L. hurt his company’s sales by “not resolving the current debacle” with players who refuse to stand for the national anthem. That resulted in a wave of criticism, given that the gesture is a protest against racial injustice. The comments also prompted skepticism, since other advertisers said they had not been adversely affected.
The situation escalated when a white supremacist website decided to endorse Papa John’s for the comments — to the one that the shoe company New Balance found itself in a year ago, when a company official said that “we feel things are going to move in the right direction” under Mr. Trump. Papa John’s distanced itself from the group.
Last week, the brand took to Twitter to clarify its position, reiterate its distaste for “neo-Nazis” and apologize to those who found the remarks about the N.F.L. to be “divisive.” It added, “We believe in the right to protest inequality and support the players’ movement to create a new platform for change. We also believe together, as Americans, we should honor our anthem. There is a way to do both.”
These situations, said Norm Johnston, global chief digital officer for Mindshare, are a reminder that for companies today “there is nowhere to hide.”
“In an age where everything can be politicized,” he said, “it may be impossible for brands to not take a position on core values.”