Consumerism and Identity Advertising
Companies in the United States have a long history of appealing to the political identities of consumers in their advertising campaigns, a technique that especially gained traction in the 1960s and 70s during the environmental movement. However, the degree to which this benefits the companies varies, and whether these methods have a positive effect on society is controversial.
After searching for a historical background of marketing to the political identities of consumers, most of the evidence appeared with respect to environmentally driven political identities. Aside from this issue, research appears to be lacking in the historical context of political identity advertising. Working backwards from current political identity-focused ads did not result in a comprehensive timeline for this report. Thus, here we will present a timeline of politically-conscious advertising with respect to environmentalism as an example, provide data on effectiveness of this marketing technique, and will provide a few modern-day examples.
The historical environment in the 1960s and 1970s was defined by environmental events, actions, and responses. After the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, “modern environmentalism” erupted, followed by the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act and the creation of the EPA by President Nixon in 1970. Given the new push for a greener world, the environment became a key part of politics during this period. Capitalizing on political shifts toward an environmentally conscious United States, companies began to incorporate nature into their advertising products. This started with granola, where naturalist Euell Gibbons endorsed Grape Nuts product back in the early 1970s. Even tobacco ads were advertising as being “natural” in the 1970s.
The green brand continued to grow in the 1980s and 1990s, following climate change concerns and the global warning debate of the 1990s. One of the first companies to market itself as a “green brand” was a petroleum company, BP. The tagline used in 1999, “beyond petroleum”, helped the company grow its business over the next six years. Sustainability was added to brand positioning and became a true consumer interest in the 2000s, with green branding expanding exponentially.
Corporations led the surge of the sustainability agenda, and corporate social responsibility became a major focus. Brands such as Tide reduced their packaging, and Clorox created a green product line in household cleaners, capitalizing on this political shift. In the mid-2000s, a brand could be considered “green” based on packaging and the color for the logo, but by the late 2000s, consumers wanted to see energy efficiency and biodegradable or recyclable packaging in products, which has become more of the norm.
The Downside- Greenwashed Products
Greenwashing, or trying to give the impression of being “green” without actually focusing on true sustainability measures is common given the current culture, in which consumers are likely to spend extra money on organic foods or environmentally friendly products. This technique can lead to backlash if their failure of true sustainability is uncovered.
As one example, Tyson came under fire for putting an “all natural” label on its chickens, when it was discovered that the animals were treated with antibiotics and fed GMO corn.
BP famously redesigned their logo, in the shape of a green flower, and has pushed through campaigns that highlight their greenness. GM similarly advertised its SUV’s that get 21 mpg as green with a “gas friendly to gas free” campaign.
Effectiveness of political identity advertising
Of course, political identity advertising extends beyond environmental topics. A study conducted in 2013 examined the impact on social topic information and corporate social responsibility on consumer perceptions. The authors found that manipulation of social topic information, in other words, messages that provided detailed information about social topics, had a notable impact on consumer perceptions, but incorporation of corporate social responsibility initiatives alone did not.
A more recent study from the Kellogg School found that companies that engage in corporate social responsibility, and incorporate this engagement into their marketing campaigns, can positively change consumer perception of their company. Not only do customers like the company more, but they actually perceive that the products of the company perform better if the company is being socially responsible. Participants were given a task, to taste wine or to inspect results of a teeth whitener, and to evaluate the performance. Some products were presented with descriptions of the company’s socially responsible behavior, such as donations to UNICEF, while others were not presented with this information. On average, consumers believed the products stamped with social responsibility tags performed better.
In addition, there appears to be benefit from addressing social and environmental issues. A study published in 2015 found that nine in ten consumers expect companies to operate responsibly to address such issues, and 84% of consumers said they seek out responsible products specifically. However, corporate social responsibility reports are not enough; these are infrequently read by consumers. Instead, stories and data related to impact of these activities is preferred.
Social responsibility efforts impact consumers who tend to care more about the issues in the first place. This indicates a specific market toward which advertisers will monopolize when instituting these efforts.
A 2017 report tested several socially-conscious ads with consumers and presented a set of guidelines after evaluating the results. First, the most effective ads are the most emotional, but it is important not to alienate groups if the goal is to expand your consumer reach. It is important to make a statement; being unspecific does not work in social advertising. Making a story also helps the advertising, to make it relatable to the consumer. Ads should also strive to solve a problem; Always was able to do this using their #likeagirl campaign, where using this phrase transformed ideas of sexism within the ad.
Examples: Recent failures and successes
Heineken’s successful advertisement “Worlds Apart” featured six people with different political views meeting for the first time, to listen to each other over a beer. For example, a man who claims he is against feminism is set to meet up with a feminist while another man claims he does not believe in climate change and meets with a man who is dedicated to the cause. The commercial successfully focuses on producing unity in the current divisive political climate.
Pepsi’s recent ad failed to use the political climate as a successful marketing technique. While trying to represent oppressed, poor, youth, using Kendall Jenner, known for a socialite lifestyle, as a featured actress, and suffered backlash.
Dove has been using models of various body weights, ages, and races, for a long time, focusing on socially conscious marketing. In a recent ad, the company apologized for unthoughtfully representing women of color.
Companies have long used consumer political identities to build their brands and to market their products, with this method taking off in the 1960s. Whether companies are successful with this tactic varies; however, it has become more necessary in today's climate that companies take a stand on issues that are important to consumers. Consumers will go out of their way to support companies that share, or at least seem to share, their political ideals.