Companies need to think hard before they voluntarily link their name or brand to a controversial issue. Whether it’s advertising on Australia Day or at the Super Bowl, or some other public stance, every decision has consequences, and it simply doesn’t matter whether those consequences are rational or reasonable.
Public issues by definition involve emotions and feelings rather than black and white right and wrong, and corporate involvement brings with it a real risk of going very bad, very quickly.
Take the outdoor hoarding promoting Australia Day in Melbourne which featured a picture of two smiling young Muslim girls in hijabs. The social media outcry was pretty predictable, but when the advertising company received credible threats to the organisation and its staff, they felt they had no choice but to take the billboard down.
And when Budweiser’s Super Bowl advert featured the immigrant story of the company founder, the result was a call to boycott America’s biggest-selling beer brand. Or consider the flurry of social media criticism when Target’s back-to-school catalogue included a photograph of a Muslim mother and her two young children.
We’ll probably never know the true intent and strategy behind these and similar corporate decisions. But we do know for sure that such decision-making carries risks and benefits which must be carefully weighed in the social and business interests of the organisation concerned.
A recent Wharton University analysis observed that corporate public interest campaigns are not new, but that the latest reactions from the private sector are “nearly unprecedented in intensity and scope.” The paper made the obvious point that aligning with a set of values will resonate with one group and won’t resonate with another. “If you think it’s an important enough stance to take politically and as a business in terms of what you do,” they concluded, “then you’ll make that trade-off.” In fact Forbes has reported American research which showed more than half of the public believe corporations should engage in dialogue surrounding controversial social-political issues.
Corporations and CEOs certainly seem to be showing renewed willingness to play a role in high-profile social issues with little or no apparent direct relevance to their core business. Look no further than the Who’s Who of Australian corporates who lent their names and brands to a newspaper advertisement in support of same sex marriage.
Which brings us back to the tale of the Muslim schoolgirls who appeared in that controversial Australia Day advertisement. Its withdrawal generated widespread media coverage, and TV made the two young models instant celebrities. Yet the unexpected sequel attracted much less mainstream attention. Advertising executive Dee Madigan launched a crowd-funding effort to resurrect the campaign and initially hoped to raise $20,000. What became the second fastest growing GoFundMe initiative actually raised nearly $170,000, which allowed her to put up 17 billboards, 500 street posters and seven full-page adverts – plus enough extra cash to make substantial donations to two children’s charities.
Interestingly, it was reported that the original outdoor advertising company, and two other leading players in the field, declined to carry the restored billboards. Doubtless they had their reasons, which have to be respected, though it’s a reminder that when companies choose to enter into high-profile issues there can be real costs. As Dee Madigan warned: “You have to be brave, and you have to expect backlash.”