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  • Writer's pictureAndre Havro

The Controversial Moment of Global Advertising in a Polarized Society

The Controversial Moment of Global Advertising in a Polarized Society

Global advertising is fierce as society becomes increasingly polarized on social, political, cultural, ethical, and philosophical issues. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, there is a concerning trend among American citizens, where a large portion believes that individuals with opposing opinions pose a dangerous threat to the nation's well-being as a whole. Over the past two decades, there has been a significant increase in distrust toward the "other side," a trend that continues to grow as opinions become more polarized and far-reaching.

This phenomenon reflects a growing social division, where people distanced themselves from divergent views and values, tending to cluster with individuals who share their beliefs and perspectives. This polarization leads to an atmosphere of mutual distrust, hindering constructive dialogue and the pursuit of common solutions. Additionally, polarized political discourse and inflammatory rhetoric create a hostile environment in which demonizing the "other side" becomes commonplace. Differences of opinion are often exaggerated, and those with distinct views are labeled as enemies or even threats to society.

As a result, companies are being challenged to find a delicate balance between expressing their values, attracting consumers, and avoiding controversies that could harm their brands. This delicate situation was recently highlighted in an interview with Coca-Cola's Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), Manuel Arroyo, during the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.

"We will stay away from any major controversy because there is a principle here: we are the most inclusive brand." - Manuel Arroyo, CMO of Coca-Cola

Arroyo emphasized that, from a brand safety perspective, Coca-Cola has clear guidelines and will avoid any involvement in major controversies. Coca-Cola's cautious approach to marketing is motivated by recent explosions and negative repercussions faced by other major consumer brands. A recent example was the case of ABInBev, the parent company of the famous Bud Light beer. During April and May, Bud Light experienced a sales decline after transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney endorsed the light beer on Instagram on April 1st during the March Madness. This action generated an adverse reaction from many on the right, including musician Kid Rock, who encouraged a broader boycott. ABInBev had to deal with sales losses and brand image deterioration.

The controversy involving Dylan Mulvaney and Bud Light

Another recent case illustrating the current advertising sensitivity is Target's decision, a major American retailer, to remove some LGBTQIA+-themed merchandise from its inventory. This decision was made after a flood of negative customer reactions. Among the controversial items was women's swimwear that could be used to "tuck" male genitalia and books for children aged 2 to 8 titled "Bye Bye, Binary," "Pride 1,2,3," and "I'm not a girl." While Target sought to avoid controversy, the action generated criticism from LGBTQIA+ groups and human rights advocates, demonstrating the companies' challenges in balancing different perspectives in a polarized society.

These real-life examples are just a sample of the moment advertising finds itself in the context of conflicts arising from an increasingly polarized society. Companies now have to deal with a wide range of social issues, including gender equality, LGBTQIA+ rights, racial justice, and partisan politics. Any stance taken by a brand has the potential to trigger passionate reactions from both ends of the spectrum, which, as we have seen, can lead to significant financial consequences.

Navigating carefully is necessary. On the one hand, brands must consider their company values, consumer expectations, and the potential impact on their reputation and financial performance. On the other hand, marketing strategies must be adapted to reflect the reality of today's society, where consumer activism and social media play a crucial role in amplifying voices and disseminating positive or negative messages. Brands are navigating through turbulent waters, and they must be guided with care.

In this context, just like Coca-Cola, many brands opt for a safer approach, avoiding controversial topics or expressing their positions subtly and carefully. However, it is crucial to recognize that taking a stance or remaining neutral can significantly affect a brand. In a highly connected world where information circulates rapidly through social networks and consumers are increasingly aware of a company's positions, a lack of engagement can be interpreted as omitting or lacking support for important causes.

There are also cases where brands have decided to embrace controversial issues and align their advertising with specific causes. Some companies see this as a way to emotionally connect with their target audience and build an authentic brand image aligned with consumer values. However, this approach is far from risk-free, as it can alienate a portion of the audience and result in boycotts or controversies.

In addition to the examples above, many other cases illustrate the challenges advertising faces in a polarized society. Sports brands getting involved in debates on racial justice, technology companies dealing with privacy and freedom of expression issues, and retailers facing dilemmas regarding political neutrality are just a few examples of how companies must navigate the tension between their business goals and the need to position themselves amid conflicts.

In this context, marketing professionals, through advertising, have the power to influence opinions, mobilize movements, and shape culture. Brands face the challenge of striking a balance between expressing their values and avoiding alienating significant portions of their target audience. Careful planning, extensive research, and a deep understanding of consumers are necessary to identify the most effective marketing approaches in a polarized world.

Therefore, as a marketing professional, you must navigate these turbulent waters carefully because global advertising is going through a controversial moment. Brands face the difficult task of balancing their positions, values, and commercial interests with the risk of controversies, boycotts, and reputation damage. You must adopt careful strategies, considering consumer expectations, and the constantly changing social dynamics, to ensure a responsible and effective marketing approach in a polarized context.


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