Unprecedented criticism: politicians under fire from business

by Joseph Reed

Since President Trump’s inauguration, we’ve seen an unprecedented level of criticism from the business community levelled at a sitting Commander-in-Chief. Beginning with statements criticising Trump’s so-called Muslim Ban, this phenomenon came to a head during the Super Bowl, when a number of global brands used the stage to make an overtly political statement.

This year, among the usual celebrity cameos and humour, a number of the world’s most high-profile companies used the opportunity to deliver a social message, with some appearing to make a pointed criticism of the President’s recent executive orders.

Coca Cola re-ran an ad from 2014 featuring a multilingual version of America the Beautiful, Airbnb went for a simple 30 second spot celebrating the diversity of its customers and workforce and Budweiser’s offering was a cinematic masterpiece telling the story of its founder’s journey from Germany to the USA.

Making a point of this nature is brave. Coca Cola isn’t a trendy brand favoured by the liberal elite, and the Super Bowl isn’t a niche literary journal littering a table in a Brooklyn coffee house. These brands have chosen to question the actions of a President elected into office less than six months ago by vast numbers of their customers, and initial reports suggest it has paid off.

Making a public statement condemning Trump’s so-called Muslim Ban (a la Starbucks) is one thing, but using America’s most viewed stage as a platform to offer implicit criticism of the Leader of the Free World is a significant move.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, there was recent precedent in the UK when Virgin took on Jeremy Corbyn, calling out the Labour leader for sending a video on train overcrowding from the floor of a train when there were seats available on board.

Both sides of the Atlantic, companies emboldened by the weak polling figures of political leaders are acting to protect their reputations and build their brand narratives.

Increasingly, consumers want their brands to stand for something, to behave responsibly and operate based on values. In the States, companies are prioritising this above traditional deference to elected politicians, hedging that consumer approval will outweigh any regulatory backlash.

Norms have been reversed and companies are providing the checks and balances for government on the biggest possible stage, not the other way around.

As troubling a notion as that may be, the political polarisation sweeping across the US and UK means that companies can afford to be agenda-setting. Politics has become increasingly emotive and divisive – it’s a risk, but companies that take a stand can have a lot to gain.