If touching Social Security is the third rail of politics (a metaphor for subjects so controversial that merely referencing them can mean the instant death of one’s political career), then touching politics is the third rail of marketing. Including politics in one’s marketing often means alienating 50 percent or more of one’s potential customer base, and not just temporarily but perhaps permanently.
Marketing expert Derek Halpern of SocialTriggers says “Marketing + politics = disaster.” A study from J. Walter Thompson Intelligence found that politics can be such a turn off that political ads have a negative effect on the performance of ads that follow them, even if those subsequent ads have nothing to do with politics. Participants in the study who viewed a non-political, brand ad after a political ad found the brand ad to be 27 percent less appealing, 29 percent less entertaining and 32 percent less relevant.
On the other hand, Amazon, Apple, Lyft, Nordstrom and Starbucks have been outspoken in their political positions, and a study by Morning Consult found that young adult Americans “are […] overwhelmingly supportive of brands that take stances on issues: 78 percent agree that companies should take action to address the important issues facing society….”
However Josh Steimle, CEO of digital marketing agency MWI, used politics to successfully gain attention for a client during the 2016 election cycle, without any negative impact. “Our client, Beardbrand, makes beard oil and other beard care products,” Steimle explains. “I thought it would be funny to photoshop beards on the top 10 presidential candidates, including the women, and put the images out there.”
However, Beardbrand had a strict policy against mixing politics in their marketing, so Steimle asked them, “How about if I post this online somewhere and explain that it is a rejected marketing campaign?” Beardbrand agreed, so Steimle hired a freelance artist to add the beards to candidates’ images in Photoshop, and then posted the images in the Buzzfeed Community section under the headline What Would the 2016 U.S. Presidential Candidates Look Like With Beards? He then threw a few hundred dollars into a Facebook ad campaign targeting people who were fans of Buzzfeed, politics and humor, and waited to see what would happen.
Steimle didn’t have to wait long. As he details in a blog post I Posted Something On BuzzFeed. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next. the images quickly became popular, ultimately generating hundreds of thousands of views of the original article, with it being referenced by various news websites and popular blogs.
Steimle is back at it with a new infographic (see below), which his agency created for Blackbird Label, makers of “the most comfortable slacks in the world.” If politics has got you down, use this infographic to take a break from the negative side of political news and brush up on the history of who wore what kind of pants in the Oval Office (my personal favorite? Hillary Clinton’s honorable mention).
“There is a strong incentive to reference politics in marketing,” Steimle says, “There is a large segment of the population who will look at anything that is tied to controversy. When we create something that references politics we try to trigger that initial reaction of ‘Oh, what’s this, something about Trump? I’ve got to take a closer peek…’ but then combine it with something that tells people it’s harmless to look, that it’s…