Relationship between Trump, corporate America shifting
As Super Bowl ads glorified immigrants, promoted equal pay for women, advocated for the environment, and called for action against “awful hair,” it became apparent Sunday that some businesses are betting against President Donald Trump.
None of the ads mentioned Trump by name, but their messages and imagery presented unmistakable challenges to his positions.
84 Lumber produced a short film tracking an mother and daughter’s emotional journey to the border and through the door in Trump’s promised wall. Fox refused to air the final scene, but audiences racing online to see it crashed the company’s website.
A Budweiser ad from Anheuser-Busch told an idealized version of the story of the company’s immigrant co-founder Adolphus Busch. Experts say it is unclear how much the ad, which was presumably months the making, was intended as commentary on Trump rather than just recounting a traditional American success story.
“It isn’t entirely clear how much of a statement the company wanted to make with its immigrant story, but the political atmosphere is so volatile that nearly everything is seen through that lens,” said Daniel Korschun, an associate professor of marketing at Drexel University who studies corporate political activism.
Airbnb, which reportedly put its ad together in a matter of days, delivered a message of acceptance with the text, “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”
Hair product company It’s a 10 predicted “four years of awful hair” in its Super Bowl ad. Coca-Cola revived a 2014 ad that showed Americans of different ages and ethnicities drinking soda set to “America the Beautiful.”
Several of the ads were initially well received. Three of the top four ads in the USA Today Ad Meter competition delivered political messages to some degree, including the Budweiser ad, an Audi spot about equal pay, and a Kia commercial featuring Melissa McCarthy as an environmental activist.
Marketing experts said the spate of politically charged ads was atypical for the big game.
“We’ve had ads with somewhat political messages in the past, but this year was much more active than usual Executives are beginning to wake up to the fact that silence in the political arena may not be an option,” Korschun said.
“It was an unprecedented year for political messages in commercials, and focused on Trump as opposed to just social issues,” said David Allan, a media consultant and marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University. “It was pretty hard to watch them and not think that it had something to do with him.”
According to Allan, advertisers usually wait for consumer sentiment to harden and the sales implications of a political position to become clear before making this kind of statement, but Trump has clearly changed that calculation.
“The liberal media and liberal Hollywood and the liberal music scene typically are very proactive on these kind of thingsbut the commerce part of it, advertisers, usually aren’t,” he said.
Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of advertising at Boston University and a former political media consultant, said themes often emerge in a year’s Super Bowl ads, and this was the latest example of that.
“This year was basically social messagingNot at all surprising. What is surprising is that some larger brands waded into it,” he said.
For small brands like 84 Lumber and It’s a 10, there is not much to lose, but for others, there is great risk if they misjudge the politics of their customer base.
“Is anyone going to walk away from Airbnb because of their message? No For Budweiser, that’s a little more of a gamble because that’s more of a red state brand,” Berkovitz said.
As Trump’s behavior and policies push politics into unfamiliar territory, he is having a similar effect on businesses, with even the brand of shoes a store carries now taking a political dimension. Days before the game, two major department store chains confirmed last week that they plan to stop carrying Ivanka Trump’s clothing and accessories, citing low sales.
“Each year we cut about 10 percent and refresh our assortment with about the same amount. In this case, based on the brand’s performance we’ve decided not to buy it for this season," a Nordstrom spokesperson told ABC News.
Neiman Marcus confirmed Thursday that it is dropping Ivanka’s jewelry line because of its sales performance.
Nordstrom has adamantly denied that the political backlash against the Trump brand dictated its decision, echoing the company’s previous statements that carrying Trump family products should not be seen as taking a political position.
“This isn't a political decision for us. Based on the brand's performance, we've decided not to buy for this season,” Nordstrom’s Twitter account stated in one of many responses to angry Trump supporters over the weekend.
Despite those denials, activists behind the #GrabYourWallet campaign declared victory. The movement has attempted since October to pressure businesses to cut ties with the Trump family over President Trump’s past offensive comments about women.
“The people who voted against Donald generate two thirds of this nation's economic activity. When we vote w/ our dollars, it's powerful,” co-founder Shannon Coulter tweeted after the Nordstrom announcement.
A spokesperson for the Ivanka Trump line rejected the suggestion that sales have been negatively impacted by her father’s presidency.
“The Ivanka Trump brand continues to expand across categories and distribution with increased customer support, leading us to experience significant year-over-year revenue growth in 2016,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We believe that the strength of a brand is measured not only by the profits it generates, but the integrity it maintains.”
Korschun said it has become impossible to separate eponymous Trump family businesses from his controversial political persona, even as he and Ivanka claim to be distancing themselves from those companies.
“Whether it is a resident in one of Donald Trump’s buildings, a purchaser of Ivanka Trump’s product line, or a traveler at a resort associated with the Trump Organization, his presence is simply too salient for people to ignore,” he said.
Businesses that try to stay out of political fights are getting dragged into the Trump swamp amid criticism for inaction and threats of boycotts.
“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There’s really no way to get away from it,” Berkovitz said.
Corporate America has struggled since Election Day to balance the benefits of staying on Trump’s good side with the increasingly vocal public opposition to him. With massive protests across the country in recent weeks and support for Trump slipping, companies now seem more amenable to the demands of anti-Trump customers than they may have been immediately after the election.
Trump’s tweets complaining of outsourcing of jobs and expensive government contracts have inflicted short term damage on the market value of businesses that angered him. He has showered positive PR on companies that reinforce his economic message, even if they are announcing job creation he bears no responsibility for.
Merely agreeing to meet with Trump has spurred criticism of some top executives, including those invited to serve on White House advisory councils.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick dropped out of Trump’s business advisory council after a #DeleteUber hashtag spread and hundreds of thousands of users erased the ridesharing app over the company’s ties to Trump. Elon Musk spent much of Sunday defending his involvement with the council on Twitter, suggesting that reasonable experts engaging with Trump is preferable to the alternative.
“Activists should be pushing for more moderates to advise President, not fewer. How could having only extremists advise him possibly be good?” Musk wrote. He said he used a council meeting Friday to raise objections to the travel ban with the president and call attention to climate change.
“We wouldn't have wanted you to advise the Third Reich either,” Coulter tweeted in response. “We would have wanted you to fight it.”
Some companies are fighting, with Apple, Google and more than 90 others signing on to legal briefs Sunday opposing Trump's travel ban policies.
Although Trump’s popularity sits at historically low levels two weeks into his term, Allan noted that the president is still viewed favorably by some demographics. A recent CNN/ORC poll found 90 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s performance, while only 44 percent of the public overall approves.
Notably absent from Sunday’s Super Bowl ad slate were commercials implicitly or explicating endorsing Trump’s positions. Berkovitz expects that some business ally or a civic or religious leader will eventually lead such a pro-Trump push and others who have so far stayed silent will follow, but he is not surprised the anti-Trump movement has more momentum.
“It’s always easier to be against something than for it,” he said.
Pro-Trump activists have attempted to rally social media forces against his detractors. #boycottBudweiser and the misspelled #boycottBudwiser both trended on Twitter after the Super Bowl in response to the immigration undertones of the brewer’s ad.
“Executives need to represent their constituents,” Korschun said. “That means, they need to have a feel for what is important to those constituents, both from a self-interest perspective and a more values-based perspective.”
In the case of Uber and the travel ban, he observed a combination of factors, with some drivers being personally impacted by the policy but many customers opposing it on moral grounds. The actions Uber and Kalanick took in response addressed both of those issues.
“It is healthy for companies to engage in some political discourse, as long as they are doing it on behalf of their constituents,” Korschun said. “It’s when executives try to push a personal agenda that they often find the most trouble.”
Over the next four years, it could become difficult for companies to avoid being seen as either pro- or anti-Trump, particularly those that have dealings with the president’s companies, and choosing sides will have consequences.
“There are very few brands that would like to have only Republican or only Democratic consumers,” Allan said.