Brands can’t pretend that they don’t exist in a world of important social and political issues. Customers don’t just want to feel represented and seen in advertising: they also want to know that the brand they support aligns with their own moral and ethical values. It’s important to stand up for what is right, even if it may make some people upset. But a controversial ad campaign is also a surefire way to get people talking about your brand.
Bud Light has been an iconic brand for over 40 years. It’s a staple drink on game days, happy hours, weekends, and vacations. Recently, Bud faced a right-wing backlash when it hired a trans influencer as a spokesperson for the brand. For some companies, that might be scary—and make them think twice about getting involved. But that would be a mistake.
We looked at previous cases of advertising campaigns that faced backlash to make a case for why companies shouldn’t be afraid to take a stand when it counts.
Bud Light adopts new, inclusive tone of voice.
A mob of social media trolls came out of the woodwork when Bud Light sent the iconic trans actress, Dylan Mulvaney, a pack of beer with her face on it to celebrate her “365 days of girlhood” in March 2023. The celebratory gift sparked offense among anti-trans beer drinkers, some going so far as to demand a boycott. At the same time, sponsorship was celebrated by those in the LGBTQ+ community as an impressive act of inclusivity.
As Alissa Heinerscheid, Bud Lights’ VP of marketing pointed out in the Make Yourself at Home podcast, the Dylan Mulvaney spotlight was a savvy strategic step for Bud Light. It was a way to update their brand away from a “fratty” and “out of touch” persona toward a more inclusive and empowering voice. “I had a really clear job to do when I started this job. We need[ed] to evolve and elevate this iconic brand…[which] means inclusivity, shifting the tone, and having a campaign that’s truly inclusive and feels lighter, brighter and appeals to women and to men.” By opening the Bud Light audience to women and trans people, they are in fact inviting a much larger range of customers—gaining far more than they lose in the process.
Hershey’s Chocolate similarly faced boycotts from anti-trans customers when they chose to feature trans activist Fae Johnstone in their International Women’s Day campaign. But, again, they gained more than they lost by making this choice. Hershey’s is an iconic brand, and nothing will change that, least of all a cadre of internet trolls. Knowing this, they made a smart, forward-thinking move, and expanded their circle of customers instead of contracting it. The Hershey’s campaign made it clear that they stand for trans equality and will support and uplift women and all members of the LGBTQ+ community—a statement that can only make people more likely to buy their chocolate.
Nike takes a knee with Kaepernick.
In 2018, Nike took a political stand in an advertising campaign by featuring NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in an Emmy-winning commercial. The “Dream Crazy” advert angered those who did not approve of Kaepernick’s act of kneeling during the national anthem to protest systemic racism. While spotlighting Kaepernick in an ad campaign angered those who disagreed with his statement, the advert was ultimately a major success. In fact, Nike’s stock rose by 5% in the weeks following the release of the “Dream Crazy” advert.
It’s important to note that Nike continued to evoke strong feelings and fight racism through future ad campaigns. In 2020, Nike released another anti-racism campaign, “For Once, Just Don’t Do It.” The ad featured a series of poignant statements against a black background. “Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us. Don’t make any more excuses. Don’t think this doesn’t affect you. Don’t sit back and be silent.” Nike proves that it is possible to make a campaign that succeeds as an advertisement and a political statement.
Yoplait challenges mom-shaming with authenticity and humor.
Yoplait Yogurt’s Mom On campaign from 2017 is another clear example of how brands can uplift and inspire audiences even through controversial advertising. The ad opens with a mother breastfeeding in public and goes on to depict mothers facing judgment and contradictions in their daily lives. Yoplait specifically chose to focus on the ways that mothers are so often criticized, gossiped about, and ridiculed for their parenting choices. The campaign tackles mom-shaming with empathy, confidence, and humor. While it may have angered or offended some viewers who feel strongly about breastfeeding in public, or moms wearing yoga pants to dinner, the campaign ultimately proved successful: Yoplait saw a 1,461% lift in brand interest.
A revolutionary medtech startup got a website upgrade
A medical technology startup, Ezra used the latest technology to screen patients for prostate cancer. Unfortunately, its website didn’t match these ambitions—it was too serious, and risked alienating the at-risk patients Ezra was trying to attract. But after approaching MarketSmiths, Ezra soon got a website it could be proud of. Interviewing a number of SMEs, we dug deep into the science of cancer diagnosis—while keeping copy upbeat and approachable. Between that and help with social media and SEO, we’ve helped transform Ezra into one of the most impressive healthcare firms around—and kept their audience safe from the scourge of cancer.
There’s no such thing as bad press.
Making a political or controversial statement in advertising can be seen as a risky and bold move for brands. But, as the saying goes, all press is good press. From enraged to inspired, political advertisements are a way to evoke emotion and make a statement. At the end of the day, the Bud Light controversy sparked a wide array of virtual conversations and gained impressive amounts of media attention. The result? More cans of beer cracked open. Bud Light, Hershey’s, Nike, and Yoplait all prove that what might seem like a risky decision is in fact a way to get people talking about your brand, create space for a new customer base, and craft a stronger image.
Instilling emotion is a great way to inspire action among consumers. Authentic and engaging campaigns that speak to greater social or political issues are a clever and important way to boost consumer engagement and get people talking about your brand. The writers at MarketSmiths are messaging experts with the skills and creativity to help hone your Brand’s voice.
Dare to make a greater impact. Let MarketSmiths craft the perfect powerful statement for your brand.