Navigating today’s politics: three things brands should know

Getty Images
Getty Images

The election highlighted what many Americans already understood: we are a deeply divided nation, and that’s not changing anytime soon.

Wednesday, January 6th broke cold and sunny, a typical winter day in the nation’s Capital.

The day had historical significance, as Congress met to count electoral college votes and formalize Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States. Normally a pro-forma affair with little drama, tension was thick in the air due to the turmoil of the preceding weeks. 

While investigators will spend months analyzing what went wrong to result in such a spectacular security failure, it’s likely that a lot of different variables lined up at the same time.

January 6th broke open several simmering problems that will have a trickle-down effect on the advertising industry for years to come.

1. Social media’s disinformation problem

Social media platforms moved with whiplash speed to remove inciting content, even from President Trump himself, within 24 hours of the storming of Capitol Hill. It was a decision both praised and condemned. 

For advocates that have been pushing social media companies to do more for years, it was probably bittersweet. Drastic change forged in the heart of crisis rarely results in the best long-term approach. 

A cynic could point out that the Capitol Hill riot and the Georgia Senate run-off results happened on the same day, which begs the question: Were the social media companies’ change of heart a result of the riot or an attempt to appease a newly unified Democratic government? Was it both?

While the general public often misses the nuance around social media platforms and free speech, the past couple of weeks have further intensified debates on the enormous influence these platforms have on American discourse. Congress has been talking about reforms to Section 230 for years. President-elect Biden has indicated a desire to repeal it entirely. 

It seems pretty likely that Section 230 reform will be front and center in the 117th Congress, with  renewed intensity. Implications for the advertising industry could be significant.

2. Disparity of treatment based on race

Nationwide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd brought about a national public reckoning. 

It also created a reckoning within the advertising industry, from recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday to setting new recruitment and retention targets aimed at diversifying the executive ranks. Agencies and advertisers seemed to arrive at an inflection point after many false starts. 

Progress on diversity goals has been slow. But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, interactions between BLM protestors and law enforcement, as well as how some media described protestors as “rioters,” the need for change is undeniable. 

Acknowledging disparities is an important first step, but the next one is harder. This year, the industry will need to commit to actionable, quantifiable change to achieve lasting progress. 

3. America is still incredibly polarized 

The election highlighted what many Americans already understood: we are a deeply divided nation, and that’s not changing anytime soon. Agencies and advertisers with a national audience have never had to walk a finer line.

A previously trivial copy decision, such as choosing to highlight a company’s Forest Stewardship Council certification, might now be second-guessed over concern of potentially alienating people in states where the local economy depends on the timber industry. Is the inclusion of the certification a proxy for a company's political leanings? Everything becomes complicated in a divided nation quick to ascribe meaning and slow to forgive. 

There are no easy answers. The best starting place is not just awareness, but a commitment to creating a diverse workplace that can spot issues across a wide spectrum. Myopic thinking is a result of homogeneity — and it’s going to be the Achilles heel of a lot of misguided campaigns if agencies and advertisers aren’t careful. 

Alison Pepper is EVP of government relations at the 4A's

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