We live in complicated times.
There is no question that the rhetoric and rise of Donald Trump has left the nation – indeed, the world – breathless with angst. Our worst expectations for a coarsened body politic have come to pass. It’s gotten ugly out there. On the one hand, we can all acknowledge that Trump’s campaign has given voice to the millions of Americans displaced and discouraged by a generation’s worth of changes in trade policy and technology that left them essentially derailed, even as “coastal elites” continued to thrive. On the other hand, did they have to pick Donald Trump as their flag bearer?
It was in this frame of mind that I read with interest the recent NY TIMES article, “Corporations Grow Nervous About Participating in Republican Convention.”
If asked by a client whether to sponsor the GOP convention, my response would be a hearty “NFW.” To be affiliated with that crass show of mean-spiritedness would never be worthwhile. But you probably already knew that I was a card-carrying Obama voter, so maybe that doesn’t surprise you?
The thing is, I’d offer the same advice to brands considering a sponsorship of the DNC Convention.
I believe that more than ever before, political interests that publicly intersect with corporate branding represent an increasingly bad idea. America has achieved historic levels of partisanship; the chart at the top of this post shows this trend, via Pew Research. Allying yourself with Democrats or Republicans risks vilification by the opposing side. Trying to split the difference by appealing to both parties is seen as wishy-washy (at best). It’s a lose-lose for brands.
As you no doubt recall, two weeks ago Microsoft unleased an Artificial Intelligence bot on Twitter, and within 24-hours it had gone from tweeting empowering messages like “Humans are awesome!” to “Hitler was right, I hate the Jews.” The actual story behind the AI bot’s descent into hell is a bit more complicated than the headlines would have you believe, but it’s a telling signal that should be heard by brands worldwide. “Online America” is in a dark mood right now. It feels like our national soul hangs in the balance. It’s not the right time to pick sides. It’s not the right time to start hawking potato chips.
For brands, it’s probably time to sit on the sidelines when it comes to political brand connections. Maybe eat some chips and enjoy the show. Rubbernecking is free, and no one will blame you for it.