• Richard Forbes

Advertising in Crisis: Stale or Strategic?

Following an inconclusive night of election results, tensions remain high as Americans await news of the official winner of the presidential race. With this election season being especially divisive, consumers have looked to their favorite brands for support in their voting decisions. Whether these brands' communications align or conflict with a consumer’s ideology, it’s a gamble to choose a side and alienate one group. Therefore, branding amid controversy — such as around Election Day — is a huge risk.

The trend of brands having their own personalities and opinions is only increasing, especially on social media platforms. According to the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study, 64% of worldwide consumers make purchases based on a company’s social or political beliefs. “Brands are now being pushed to go beyond their classic business interests to become advocates,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “It is a new relationship between company and consumer, where purchase is premised on the brand’s willingness to live its values, act with purpose, and if necessary, make the leap into activism.”

Let’s explore some brands that ran the gauntlet and how beneficial it was for their sales and image.


As election night came to an indecisive close, many accounts spread words of unity on social media. Most notably, GAP posted the below image of a half-blue, half-red sweatshirt with the caption, “The one thing we know, is that together, we can move forward.”

While these sentiments may have been said with good intentions, they rang stale among audiences, eventually leading GAP to delete the post. Though tensions are high, brands are the last voices voters want to hear. This serves an important lesson in reading the room and knowing when your time to speak is.

Twitter was naturally quick to meme the response. The bottom line is to sit this one out, brands. Consumers know mindless consumption is not a solution to this anxiety, and no one cares about buying your hoodie right now.


GAP wasn’t the only brand offering messages of camaraderie: Sandwich chain Potbelly also tweeted on Wednesday, “We are resilient. We are strong. We’ll be ok. Give yourself some slack today and breathe.”

As National Sandwich Day also fell on Election Day, Potbelly hoped to capitalize on the attention by offering discounted sandwiches and cookies. However, this tweet ultimately backfired and was taken down. Similar to GAP, the brand’s opinion was not the conversation that was needed at that moment in time. A brand’s ability to understand the consumer’s priorities always comes before an attempt to sell them something. This knowledge may have saved them from a brewing crisis.


Calm, a meditation app, was perhaps the most appropriate advertiser related to the elections. Alongside being a broadcast partner for CNN, it gave viewers a break from the chaos with a 30-second sound spot of rainwater on leaves. Not only clever use of the product, Calm understood the feelings of viewers and offered a beneficial solution, rather than just supportive words. This ad appears to have paid off for the brand: It raised 20 ranks (now 79th in overall apps and 1st in Health & Fitness) on Apple’s App Store.

"We understand the uncertainty of this election cycle can be a source of anxiety for many of us, especially as it coincides with an ongoing pandemic," the spokesperson said. "Our goal during CNN’s Key Race Alerts was to provide viewers a moment of Calm, and a reminder to take a deep breath during a stressful night," they added. Overall, the CNN ad campaign worked for Calm due to its witty joke of how stressed people have been this week as election results poured in — and particularly by CNN's "Key Race Alert" music that plays when there's an important update.


Debuting the weekend prior to Election Day, Oreo’s animated social media, TV and digital ad invited unity among Americans. In a scene where amusement fair toys come to life after-hours (very Toy Story-esque), an arguing donkey and elephant (representing the Democratic and Republican political parties) come together to help a cat reach Oreos and milk. “Life is sweeter when we come together,” the ad concludes. “Stay playful.”

“Oreo has always been about connection — and we believe this is a message that is needed,” Jordi Martinez, global group creative director at The Martin Agency (artist of the ad), said. “As a team, The Martin Agency and Oreo recognize that no matter what happens in this moment, there’s undeniable potential in unity. We chose to tell a story that lives up to that belief in an unapologetically optimistic way.”

While the ad received overwhelmingly positive attention, some viewers were reminded of the Kylie Jenner and Pepsi commercial from 2017. Both ads rely on a product or person to solve an overarching, worldly problem. This naive optimism did not impress audiences.

The bottom line: elections are stressful and when communicating for a brand, messages of relief can be risky.

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