Why Issue-Based Advertising Is Like Walking a Minefield

Tim Tebow Super Bowl Ad Begs the Question of What Makes for a Successful Strategy to Sell Causes

By Published on .

Tim Calkins
Tim Calkins
Derek D. Rucker
Derek D. Rucker
The Super Bowl is an annual advertising spectacle. And while the story always has similar elements, there is almost always a new plot twist. One that received attention, and scrutiny, this year was the entry of Focus on the Family. The group purchased time to air an execution addressing the issue of abortion -- they are pro-life advocates -- using the story of college quarterback phenom Tim Tebow.

Ultimately, the group aired, relative to the expectations of many, a relatively soft-sell ad that only subtly touched on the core issue at hand and instead encouraged viewers to visit the website for more information about Tebow's story and the cause.

Although this execution can be examined from many angles, an interesting angle for a CMO relates to understanding issue-based advertising and how it might differ from more traditional brand-advertising efforts. Issue-based advertising is not a new development -- most political campaigns have more than their fair share. On the surface, it might seem very similar to brand advertising because they share the same basic goal: to persuade people to change their opinions and behavior in favor of the message advocacy. However, while the goals are indeed similar, the playing field tends to be vastly different.

Advertising based on political and moral issues tends to more likely hit upon topics that are polarizing among an audience and also reflect core values that are often deeply seeded. Sure, there is an occasional die-hard Dunkin' Donuts fanatic or extreme Mac user, but consumer loyalty to most brands is likely to pale in comparison with their loyalty to opinions on topics such as abortion and capital punishment. What does this mean for advertisers?

In many cases, a strong issue-based message might have several distinct effects. First, when it comes to a broad media venue, for which there is no better example than the Super Bowl, a risk is present in alienating a large part of the audience. For any issue, there are people who will be so entrenched in their values that a single exposure will do little to shake them, but it might lead them to mobilize against the execution or advocacy. Second, and a counterpoint, for those who support the issue, this could serve as a shot of adrenaline for them to be more active in sharing their views. Finally, for the undecided, the message could pull them in, fall on deaf ears or, in a worst-case scenario, push them away.

Strategically, issue-based advertising is also often much more of a matter of opinion than fact. That is, superiority of one brand over another can sometimes be grounded in fact. For instance, a phone company has greater network coverage than its competitor or an office retailer has lower prices. With issues of opinions, often there are no hard facts that put the dispute to rest. A consequence for advertising is that there tends to be a necessity to rely on more emotion-based messaging rather than cognitive appeals.

Of course, it's important to concede that not all issue-based advertising must center on disagreement. Consumers do share the same position on some issues. For example, most people would agree that the pursuit of life, liberty and freedom is important. Similarly, the last few years have seen companies push a "green" message around their brand, which is more inclusive than other issues. These caveats aside, it does seem that most moral and political issues are much more diffuse in the positions advocated.

All that said, CMOs can draw an analogy between advertising on moral and political issues and walking through a minefield. If the goal is to bolster opinions among those who share the viewpoint and to move people over who are undecided, the execution has to be done without creating uproar among proponents of the other side, or the general public. If successful, the advertisement could indeed accomplish objectives of swaying the undecided or motivating supporters. However, a single misstep in the tonality of the execution could set off a strong negative outcry that could drown out any positive efforts. And a network choosing to air an issue-based message potentially puts itself in the precarious position of offending a group of its viewers.

So what's the general advice for pursuing issue-based advertising? First, much of the success of such efforts might rest in invigorating current supporters of the advocacy, rather than swaying large droves of people. Second, especially on polarizing issues, one has to recognize that there is a large constituency that will not be persuaded by the appeal and may react against it. Indeed, the last thing an advocacy group should want is to have their opponents to go on the offensive. Third, as the general issue is typically known, a lot of weight rests on the tonality of the message delivered.

Regarding this year's Super Bowl, it seems Focus on the Family used what many considered to be a relatively tame attempt to guard against major criticism -- although even their mere appearance seemed to upset some groups, a testament to the precariousness of issued-based advertising. And even if they avoided major landmines, they ultimately didn't seem to deliver a strong and strategic message either. At the Kellogg School of Management, students found the positioning of the message weak and expressed little motivation to follow through to visit the advertised website. And even if the ad mobilized current supporters, the lack of clear positioning for other viewers raises concerns that the costly Super Bowl spot might not have been the best platform for their message.

Tim Calkins is a clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and teaches courses in marketing strategy and acts as co-academic director of the school's branding program.
Professor Derek D. Rucker is an associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He teaches advertising strategy and is the co-author of the Advertising Strategy textbook.
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