No one avoids Trump
The communication of US companies is - no matter the intent - increasingly being interpreted as statements for or against the president. Researchers from Roskilde University have studied how Donald Trump impacts the communication culture in God’s own country.
We see a white cowboy riding his horse into the sunset, young African-Americans dancing to hip hop music and a group of Latinos relaxing at a sidewalk café. At the same time, we hear the 125-year-old patriotic hymn, ‘America the Beautiful’ in English, Spanish, Hindi and Mandarin. This is a primetime TV commercial for Coca-Cola aired during the half time of the 2017 Super Bowl, the American football league’s season finale which is steeped in tradition and reaches over 100 million viewers in the United States.
The soft drink giant’s message is inclusive, has a universal appeal and is thus perfect for the occasion. Or so one would think. Since Donald Trump won the election in 2016, that kind of communication is increasingly being turned, twisted, perceived and used politically, no matter whether that was the intention or not.
»Coca-Cola doesn’t want to comment on the commercial, so we don’t know the motives behind it for certain. Most likely it is an apolitical branding exercise, because the video had already been aired before Trump became President. Back then there was no outcry, but when the commercial was aired right after Trump’s inauguration, it was perceived as an attack on the President’s stance on immigrants,« explains Ib T. Gulbrandsen, Associate Professor in Communication at Roskilde University.
Easier to make enemies
Together with his colleagues, Julie Uldam and Sine Nørholm Just, he has analysed a number of ads, TV commercials, social media posts and other PR initiatives from American and international organisations and companies who share one thing in common: they have been interpreted as anti-Trump protests. By media outlets, interest organisations or influential opinion makers who have a political interest in promoting or disparaging the President. This is either because the communication has been expressly anti-Trump, could be perceived as anti-Trump due to socially relevant content or even because it is made out to be anti-Trump without the sender intending it as such.
»The political situation in the US is extremely divided, and this has a knock-on effect on everything the Americans talk about. The opposing groups are further apart than ever, and there is no middle ground. If you make a public statement, your message will most likely be branded as either anti-Trump or pro-Trump, even if you don’t want to pick a side. Both the supporters and opponents of the President can use you and your message to promote their own viewpoints. This makes it near impossible to find a neutral zone in which to communicate,« says Ib T. Gulbrandsen.
»The discussions become more black and white in a system like the American one
Marketing and communications specialists have always looked for current topics of conversation with a wide appeal to get the attention of the public. Right now, Americans are talking a lot about politics, and that makes it difficult to be relevant and remain on friendly terms with all sides. The car manufacturer Cadillac came to realise this the hard way following the release of a commercial based on how immigrants have impacted the history of the company. The rival of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, has also been attacked by both supporters and opponents of Donald Trump after a commercial showed demonstrators and those in power suddenly bonding over a soda.
»Companies such as Pepsi and Cadillac are in an incredibly difficult position. How do you tell your story in a way that doesn’t offend anyone? The large companies can’t afford to lose 40-50 percent of their market share. Before the public debate became politicised to the extent that it is now, it was fairly ‘safe’ to bet on diversity and the American dream - that everyone can succeed, no matter their background. Those themes have now become extremely political,« Ib T. Gulbrandsen explains.
Debates on immigration and fundamental societal values are not specifically American phenomena. But, the political climate in other countries has not yet had an effect to the same extent that it has in the United States.
»In Europe, you can still care about the environment and animal welfare without being considered as belonging to one specific political party. We all support such viewpoints, and that makes it easier to speak to our shared values. In the US, on the other hand, if companies brand themselves as green and sustainable, this will quickly be perceived as resistance to Trump’s energy agenda which favours the coal industry,« Ib T. Gulbrandsen explains. The two-party system in the United States has its share of the responsibility for seemingly simple messages of peace and reconciliation ending up as fuel for the political fire:
»The discussions become more black and white in a system like the American one. Whether you intend to or not, you will become part of the debate. You will also be criticised if you avoid commenting entirely. It’s a rather ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t’ situation.«
So yes, Donald Trump is hard to avoid. Some companies, however, turn that to their advantage, because Trump is good material for an advertising campaign.
»Trump will be good material as long as he is president, because he is a caricature. The way he talks and behaves – well, many of us have trouble seeing that as presidential. Even Trump’s supporters can laugh at his hair and communication style,« says Ib. T. Gulbrandsen. However, the key word here is laugh, because there are very few companies directly criticising Trump.
»The criticism is veiled in humour. That way, they hope to avoid reprisals from Trump and his supporters while they can simultaneously appeal to his opponents,« Ib T. Gulbrandsen explains.
There are also companies who do not veil their criticism even if they use humour. Take Smith and Sinclair - they are promoting themselves by selling orange “Trump sucks” lolly pops with the President’s face, or Lipslut, which sells “Fuck Trump” lipsticks and gives the profits from the sales to causes that work against Trump’s politics.
»I don’t think we’ll see Cadillac follow this trend with a ‘Crash Trump’ car,« says Ib T Gulbrandsen and laughs.
»But who knows? After all, we didn’t think Trump would be elected either.«
EVERYTHING IS ABOUT TRUMP
After Trump won the election, communications from organisations and companies in the US are increasingly being interpreted as political activism. There are three trends:
The president is openly ridiculed via the use of humour. Both opponents and supporters of Trump get the joke and typically view this type of communication as harmless.
Emotionally charged communication that touch on current societal issues but does not expressly pick a side. Media outlets and interest groups for and against Trump interpret this communication as anti-Trump to promote their agenda.
Supporters and opponents of Trump interpret the communications as a protest against the President, even if the sender expressly rejects having any political agenda.