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Identity Politics: A Lesson for Brands

Posted On  April 10, 2017

Did you happen to see this recent Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner? Perhaps not, as Pepsi quickly pulled it after widespread backlash on social media regarding the ad’s appropriation of a protest movement– not the first time a brand missed the mark trying to connect with the cultural zeitgeist.

If you did catch it, whether the image of a famous model stunning a crowd of multi-cultural protestors by sharing a soft drink with a police officer resonated with you positively (perhaps by highlighting an important social issue) or negatively (perhaps by striking the wrong tone on important social issues, or just being too PC for your tastes), you probably felt some emotion stirring. And, even if it didn’t resonate with you at all, you’ve likely been exposed to the emotions of others in witnessing some of the “chatter” this ad has stimulated. This brings up some relevant points for marketers and researchers to be mindful of:

  • Ads that wade into politics, especially politically charged territory, are by default entering the realm of identity and emotion. How so? Because political affiliations encompass many of the things people care about most (e.g., family, safety, money, fairness, etc.) and it is that which we care about most that arouses our emotions. So we tend to pay attention—consciously or less so—to where others stand in relation to ourselves on the issues that we care about, naturally forming groups around such affiliations. Such affiliations thus form a key part of our social identity.
  • Therefore, ad testing should pay close attention to identity in how they form subgroups and evaluate results. Traditional age/gender quads or category market segment subgroupings might miss a key finding unless they also evaluate political or issues-defined identity groups (e.g., identity with the “politically active,” Black Lives Matter, the Tea Party, etc.)
  • Test both less conscious associations in addition to explicit beliefs. A plethora of cognitive biases come into play when asking people to explicitly evaluate an ad: social desirability bias, stereotyping, bandwagon effect, availability bias, etc. And while explicit beliefs are important to understanding (even while we acknowledge these biases) it is also important to measure the emotions and less conscious associations that underlie so much of human and consumer behavior. Things like the less conscious associations we signal to others and pay attention to in others concerning basic human needs like belonging, appeal, security, and exploration. Fortunately, there is a range of techniques available to the market researcher courtesy of social and cognitive psychology. Use them.
  • Carefully consider what to communicate explicitly vs. implicitly. Just because an issue is important to someone and part of their identity doesn’t automatically mean a brand or ad has “permission” to address it. Depending upon the stereotypes identity groups hold in their minds for the brand or politics in question, and the brand’s goals, advertisers need to weigh the effectiveness of a direct vs. subtle vs. hands-off approach to achieve their desired goals. For example, the less conscious and perhaps negative stereotypes associated with a fashion model may be made painfully explicit when attempting to more subtly associate the model with something they aren’t ordinarily associated with, and those negative, now made explicit, associations may spill over unfavorably to the brand.
  • Understand ad impact in the context of a social media-connected world. Ads aren’t just “placed” anymore in desirable media channels–they can spread through social networks virally, with the context changing and evolving at every pass.  This is especially true of ads that touch on emotionally charged topics, as it is that which arouses our emotions that we are inclined to share with others around us. What does it mean to first see the ad as part of Buzzfeed vs. an article in the New York Times vs. Teen Vogue site vs. Fortunately, there are cutting edge analytic tools that can evaluate the structure of social networks and how different messages spread and are received among various pockets of those networks. Use them!

Whether your business goal is to get people to “buy the world a Coke and shower it with love” or to “live boldly with Pepsi,” advertisers should take into account issues of identity, emotion, biases and less conscious evaluation and use relevant brain science and deep social listening before releasing an ad into the social ecosystem.


  1. Jon, interesting article. I agree with the point about a plurality of interest not necessarily being a good thing for an ad- how much good can brand lift be if a similar amount of people will think *less* of the brand too? A fascinating case study to watch play out nevertheless.


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