Should Brands Virtue Signal?

The days of companies like Gillette highlighting “millions of big, strong-limbed super-men” in their advertisements are long gone. 


In January, Gillette released a polarizing short film titled, “We Believe: The Best That We Can Be.” The ad – which highlighted a number of issues related to “toxic masculinity,” a current buzzword, especially on the political left – instantly went viral, earning criticism and praise across the political spectrum.

But Gillette’s now-(in)famous ad is only the latest controversial example of companies embracing divisive political “virtue signaling” as a means of communicating with their customers. In a market that is growing more competitive by the day, should companies like Gillette try to stand out by experimenting with political messaging?

The short answer? Only with extreme caution.

Like Gillette’s short film, Nike’s viral 30th Anniversary ad featuring Colin Kaepernick also touched off a firestorm of controversy, earning praise and criticism in equal measure. By embracing Kaepernick, Nike made a deliberate decision to associate its brand with a controversial figure, effectively risking the alienation of potential customers who disagree with Kaepernick’s message of protest.

For Nike, the calculated move paid off: following the boost in free media and the subsequent backlash, Nike’s stock wobbled only before climbing to an all-time high a few days later. It was a risky decision, but it worked; polling has found that although Nike’s overall favorability may have dropped, the brand’s relationship with its most loyal customers only grew stronger.

That doesn’t mean that every brand should jump into the political fray, however. Brands who fail to spend the right amount of time and resources properly calculating the decision can pay a price: Pepsi was forced to apologize to pretty much everyone when they released an almost unbelievably off-the-mark politically themed ad that “united the internet” in disgust, and Starbucks drew the ire of customers when the company launched an engagement campaign encouraging baristas to strike up unprompted conversations about race relations.

As Michael Jordan once said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” For most brands, virtue signaling is a risk that won’t payoff unless proper caution is taken to maximize impact and mitigate – or at least anticipate – the backlash. Brands that fail to take the right steps before jumping into the political debate are in for a close shave with public relations disaster. 

Jamestown Public Affairs – Advocacy. Strategy. Political Insight.