A Brief History Of Polarisation

We are living in an age of brand polarisation. It’s taken a couple of years, but brands have begun to respond to the changed political landscape, and that response has been to take sides and make stands.

It’s easy to be cynical about this. It’s also sometimes right. Controversy is a route to media impact, talkability and column inches right now. That may not be the topmost idea in the minds of people making these ads – but it’s not completely absent either.

But there have always been routes to media coverage which fell outside any restrictive definition of what an “ad” is. “Sex sells”, used to be the mantra. And whether it did or not, it helped get plenty of free media in its day. Celebrities used to do the same. As culture and media change, the levers which grab media attention change too. Approve or not, leaning in to political polarisation is doing the job right now.

(A quick note on definitions: we’re not talking here about ads which show high positive and high negative sentiment – though some of these do. An ad for Brussels Sprout flavoured crisps is “polarising” in that sense, but that’s not the issue here. We’re talking about the ads praised as ‘polarising’ in the ad press – those which acknowledge an existing political division and take a stand on one side.)

So let’s take for granted that a politically polarising ad can earn media and build Fame. That’s important. But Fame alone doesn’t determine an ad’s effectiveness. To help build a brand, an ad needs to leave a positive emotional impression. And while it’ll take a while to properly assess the impact of the wave of polarising ads in terms of business effects and brand growth, we can use our Ad Testing star ratings to at least predict the likely long-term effectiveness of this tactic, and draw some conclusions about when it works and when it doesn’t.

Here’s a quick look back over the recent history of the polarising ad – and how those ads performed in our tests.

Always – Like A Girl: The polarising ad is an evolution of the mid-00s trend for ‘empowerment’ and ‘brand purpose’ ads, like Always’ award-winning campaign boosting tween self-confidence. These ads positioned brands as looking to tackle social problems but without taking sides or placing blame, and they were often emotionally successful (Always scored 5-Stars). With hindsight, these ads assumed a cultural consensus which the events of 2016 placed into significant doubt.

84 Lumber – The Journey: Building supplies company 84 Lumber claimed its immigration themed Super Bowl ad from 2017 was only accidentally polarising. But the furore around it set the tone for this phase of advertising’s culture wars. Howls and threatened bans from aggrieved conservatives; praise from liberals. The ad itself was a gloomy affair and scored 1-Star in our tests – one frequent problem with polarising ads is their severe and serious tone, which deadens the emotion for those less politically engaged.

Pepsi – Kendall Jenner: Not strictly polarising – everybody hated it – but the notorious Kendall Jenner ‘protest’ ad was a 1-Star cautionary tale about how not to approach the political moment. The ad treated protest politics as just more raw material to be absorbed and glossified by advertising. The lesson from its public failure? If you’re going in, go all in.

Nike – Colin Kaepernick: Nike certainly went all in, finding a genuinely stark cultural faultline and placing themselves firmly on one side of it. This is probably the most honestly and bravely “polarising” ad of the lot – relevant to the brand, and the people it annoyed really were a huge group, not just a noisy minority. As our testing showed – Nike’s poster ad was 1-Star, with an even split of positive and negative sentiment. The video ad was softer and scored higher (2-Stars) – and the Spike rating (showing short-term impact) was very high. Our conclusion? Great for Nike’s Fame and Fluency, not so strong as a brand-building move.

HSBC – You Are Not An Island: Most UK advertisers have steered well clear of taking a definite stand on Brexit. HSBC claimed their poster ads spoke to both sides of the remain/leave divide, but the response from most marketers was “who are they kidding?” Interestingly, though, the same internationalist message landed with no controversy in the brand’s TV campaign. When delivered by the gently intense and very funny Richard Ayoade, the result was a 3-Star ad the brand’s most emotional campaign of 2017. In stark, flat print, the same words had a different impact. Lesson? Execution matters.

Iceland – Ran-Tang: Iceland’s anti-palm oil ad crashed the UK Christmas ad party. In truth this wasn’t exactly polarising, but it was using the tactics of polarisation – controversy, massive social media outcry, etc – to push a less divisive corporate social responsibility message. Like a lot of sad charity ads, the commercial only scored 1-Star, but as with Nike, its Spike score was higher.

Gillette – We Believe: And so to Gillette, the latest entry, which scored 4-Stars in our testing, making it the most emotionally successful and resonant “polarising” ad to date. The secret of its success, we’d argue, is that it wasn’t really polarising at all – only 11% of respondents felt a negative emotion, compared to over 30% for Nike’s Kaepernick poster. By framing an ad whose actual content (be good people and good Dads) isn’t controversial as a highly charged response to #MeToo, Gillette guaranteed their ad would rile up a certain vocal contingent of online men. Whether this was tactical genius or oversight is a matter of opinion.

What does this brief history teach brands and advertisers? If you’re going for polarisation, think very carefully – it’s a difficult route to emotional appeal, though as Gilette prove, not impossible. Gillette found a sweet spot where its detractors were noisy but unrepresentative. Nike – far more acclaimed – created a lot more genuine negative sentiment. And as HSBC show, the tone of delivery matters as much, if not more, as the actual message.

Emotional advertising never stands still. This decade has seen the rise of several styles – tear-jerking longform storytelling; candid-camera style experiential stunts; empowering experiments like Always. All peaked and fell away, as fashions always do. Polarising ads will hit diminishing returns within a year or two. The danger for brands is that they’ll reach a point where the tactic no longer delivers Fame, but the mixed emotions it provokes linger on.


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