Brands grapple with marketing risks around Inauguration Day
Ricky Engelberg, chief marketing officer of Vistaprint, thought he had his early 2021 marketing plans cemented as of a couple weeks ago. The company—which was already known for its small business printing services but expanded last year to become one of the most popular face mask sellers during the pandemic—had a new brand campaign set to debut the week of Jan. 11. It was to be Vistaprint’s biggest advertising effort to date.
Then came the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. With the riots came uncertainty for Engelberg and other marketers about how to operate during a news cycle that is anything but predictable. Vistaprint delayed its campaign, and is waiting until after Joe Biden's inauguration, which Engelberg hopes will serve as a stabilization point, to move forward.
“The ambiguity in the world right now makes it a challenging time to try to launch a campaign,” says Engelberg. “It became a tricky time to try to debut new TV spots or go big on YouTube on things when you have no clue what the news cycle is going to be.”
The Jan. 20 inauguration itself is especially tricky for brands, which must weigh the risks of running ads during an event that could prove more polarizing than unifying, with millions of Trump supporters still clinging to conspiracy theories about the election results.
“Unless you are selling inauguration products and services, I would stay away. Our political arena is no place for brand building right now,” said one ad agency executive speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Brands are in limbo as they anxiously watch the news. Some are planning to move forward with scheduled pushes that will air next week ahead of the inauguration, despite the probability of more riots and political upheaval. Others, like One Medical—a membership based provider of health care services—have purposefully scheduled campaigns during broadcasts of the ceremony of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in order to capture the millions of eyeballs expected to tune in.
For Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, brands spent about $28 million on advertising during coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and CNN, according to spending data from Ad Age’s Datacenter and Kantar. The networks drew interest from pharmaceutical marketers including AstraZeneca and Pfizer, as well as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and United Air Emirates, to name a few. (P&G, the nation’s fourth-largest advertiser, declined comment on its inauguration ad plans this year.)
It’s possible the networks could still lure a steady stream of dollars. Fox News Media, which will air special live coverage of the ceremony on Wednesday, is seeing ad interest for this year’s inauguration that slightly exceeds what the network saw in 2017, according to Jeff Collins, executive VP of ad sales. The network declined to reveal brand advertisers. Fox is still out with its usual inventory such as billboards and sponsorship packages, and has seen strong response from marketer categories including quick-service restaurants and corporate brands, Collins says.
Virtual parades and Tom Hanks
But the day will look completely different from past inaugurations, due to COVID-19 and security concerns. (Politico today reported that a rehearsal scheduled for Sunday was delayed by a day due to security concerns.) The normal parade down Pennsylvania Avenue will be replaced by what organizers are billing as a “virtual Parade Across America.” Instead of fancy inaugural balls, TV networks and digital platforms will air an event called “Celebrating America”—a 90-minute program hosted by Tom Hanks featuring celebrities such as Demi Lovato and Justin Timberlake.
But given the unpredictable atmosphere, it’s possible that coverage of the celebratory events could be interrupted by news of protests or other unrest. The situation has caused brands to stress flexibility as they make decisions about running ads not just during the inauguration, but in the days preceding it.
“Many clients are pulling ads after last week, especially in the social space—they are being vigilant about how they are showing up in feeds,” says Mike Law, president of Amplifi, the media innovation and investment arm of Dentsu Aegis Network. "Some brands are choosing not to be live during the tension that exists in the space. We've had some clients take stuff down for a few days, while others will remain silent for the next couple of weeks."
Last week, many brands that were already running campaigns turned off their marketing for a short period of time in the aftermath of the riots. NerdWallet, which was barely a week into its “New Money Goals” campaign, pulled ads from social media channels for 24 hours following the Jan. 6 violence.
“We didn’t feel we needed to be in there, talking about money goals when there was so much going on in social media,” says Kelly Gillease, CMO of NerdWallet. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for our business to make a comment. We just stepped out of it versus taking up space with something that was not germaine for everyone at the time.” NerdWallet is not planning to suspend its campaign next week, but Gillease says the brand is keeping a pulse on the situation to be reactive in case it again needs to pause marketing.
Lively, a direct-to-consumer seller of undergarments, is planning to air its second-ever TV spot, highlighting a top-selling bra, on Jan. 18—two days before inauguration, but it has contingency plans. “Given the sensitivity of the moment, the team is prepared to be flexible and will continue to remain in close contact/interact with their community leading up to it to make sure it feels right to release then,” a spokeswoman for the New York-based brand wrote via email.
Don’t lean in
Jason DeLand, a partner at Anomaly, says brands should tread carefully, especially with any creative that tries to reference the political moment.
“The instinct brands always have is to take something that has captured the country’s attention and somehow find a way to comment on that thing in order to scrape off some of that attention for themselves. I think that is completely the wrong instinct right now,” he says. “Because this moment is bigger than any brand or any piece of marketing or any customer acquisition strategy, it’s just plain bigger. I think brands would do well not to ignore it, but certainly not to lean into it.”
In the long-term, messages of unity could be part of a broader marketing strategy, he suggested. But right now, he advised brands to engage in other ways that have more to do corporate policies, rather than marketing. “Privately every company in the world absolutely should be taking a look at how their company culture is addressing the events that have taken place over the last 12 months, including what happened last week.”
For instance, airlines have been thrust into making decisions on how to deal with unruly passengers traveling to and from Washington, D.C. American Airlines drew headlines last week when a pilot reportedly threatened to divert a flight full of pro-Trump passengers unless they did not “behave.”
Scores of brands, including Walmart, Nike and Disney, have opted to pause political donations to lawmakers who voted against President-elect Biden’s election certification. Coca-Cola stated that it has paused all political giving “in light of the unlawful and violent events in our nation’s capital last week.” The company, however, is pressing forward with support of Biden’s inaugural committee, including a donation valued at $110,000 that includes $60,000 in commemorative Coke bottles a spokeswoman says will be distributed to elected officials and other “stakeholders throughout Washington.”
‘People are going to be watching’
One Medical’s Inauguration Day ad—which is its first TV spot ever—does not make any overt mention of the election. The spot, which will run during CNN’s coverage, shows an open water swimmer, Mina Rhoden, taking her daily swim in the Bay Area waters. A voiceover asks the question, “When all this is all over, who will you be?”
The message is clearly alluding to the end of the coronavirus pandemic, but viewers could also interpret it as a nod to the end of the Trump Administration.
But that was not intentional, says CMO Doug Sweeny. “We’re a health care brand, and we’re about working with everybody. We don’t care about political leanings,” he says. Instead, the spot is meant to celebrate new beginnings after the changes brought on by the virus. “We wanted to engage on an emotional level with people and create a challenge,” says Sweeny. “We’re asking, ‘Who will you be when this is all over?’—there is transformation that we believe has happened within people during the pandemic.”
One Medical, which created the spot with Goodby Silverstein & Partners, timed it to the inauguration because it wanted to introduce itself to as many viewers as possible, Sweeny says.
“It’s a huge appointment—people are going to be watching,” he says.
Not all brands are steering clear of making a political statement, however. Patagonia, which has a history of political activism and a reputation for taking on the Trump administration—is expected to put out a message on social channels on Wednesday. “TBD on exact messaging, but consistent with our history and priorities, it will be focused on protecting the planet and democracy,” said a spokeswoman.
Contributing: Jeanine Poggi