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Media Planning and Buying Politics Media

Elections are divisive. Brands should instead plan for unifying moments


By Jackie Lyons, Chief planning officer

July 1, 2024 | 8 min read

Havas Media UK’s Jackie Lyons explains why top brands may want to sidestep politics and focus on what brings people together instead.

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Over the past year, we have experienced a significant erosion of consumer trust across our industry and beyond. As the general election looms on July 4, and with the rise of synthetic news, this erosion has reached unprecedented levels in recent months, creating a crisis of consumer trust.

Havas Media Network’s insights team conducted a survey last month in partnership with YouGov to better understand how election season is set to contribute to the trust deficit. Unsurprisingly, we found that political distrust is at a notable high, and this sentiment has started to seep into our own industry. Twice as many people are likely to distrust a brand involved in politics rather than trust it.

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Trust is an important driver of brand equity, but in a world where consumer skepticism is growing, maintaining trust requires a careful and considered approach, avoiding the pitfalls that can further alienate and divide audiences.

An era of misinformation

In addition to the usual manipulation of truth associated with political discourse, AI-generated content, including deepfakes and synthetic news, has made it increasingly difficult for consumers to distinguish between what is real and what is fake. Our survey found that 60% of respondents are concerned about the impact of AI on upcoming elections.

With July 4 marking the first general election to be battled out on TikTok, the social media platform is beginning to shift from being the go-to entertainment platform to holding significant influence in political discourse. Our survey found social media to be the primary source of election coverage for nearly half of 25–34-year-olds with double the number of 18-44-year-olds trusting it to stay updated than those above 44. But, despite its growing popularity among young people, election coverage on TikTok is increasingly plagued by manipulated content, even with its increased verification and fact-checking labeling.

Even long-standing traditional news sources are not immune to the trust deficit. Our survey found that more than one in six people trust no media sources at all for election coverage. Reuters’ Digital News Report 2024 also notes that consumers are increasingly shifting away from media sources altogether, exhibiting a trend of complete news avoidance.

Political involvement and collateral damage

Against this landscape, why a brand would intentionally become involved in political matters is a question that continues to puzzle me. Sometimes, this happens accidentally. Last month, McDonald’s became unintentionally involved in Nigel Farage’s election campaign when he was covered in one of its milkshakes (a dubious form of advertising at best), and Adidas suffered the consequences of Rishi Sunak modeling their popular Samba trainers, with audiences claiming he diminished their fashion credibility. Last Christmas, several UK retailers faced boycotts due to possible affiliations with the Middle East.

When brands make a conscious choice to enter the debate, even the boldest and most courageous ones struggle to navigate this effectively. In less-regulated states such as the US, these can easily alienate and offend huge audience segments, such as Budweiser’s 2017 Super Bowl campaign, which sparked a ‘Boycott Budweiser’ movement among Trump supporters.

Our survey found that all age groups expect brands to approach political matters with seriousness and respect, and 21% would change their opinion of a brand that expressed support for a political party.

Forward-thinking brands show their activist colors without naming and shaming political figures who have their own lives, families and friends. Patagonia exemplifies this approach, maintaining a commitment to social and environmental values and striving for real change without engaging in personal attacks.

Opportunities to unite

As an Irish person living in London for the past decade, I’ve observed that, overall, more things tend to unite the Brits than divide them (with the obvious exception of Brexit). Rather than concentrating on infrequent moments that create tension, such as elections, brands can prioritize the numerous occasions that create a sense of unity among us.

ITV’s ‘What Unites a Kingdom’ report supports this observation of mine. The report found that ‘everyday magic’ is what the Brits feel best unites the country, characterized by light-hearted humor (only when on-side and playful, never punching down), kindness, social connection, and the open expression of emotion.

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Sporting events such as the Euros, Wimbledon Tennis and the Summer Olympics offer brands endless chances to celebrate our innate similarities with a sprinkle of everyday magic. Coca-Cola’s recent #TheRitualCup campaign for the Euros does this perfectly, celebrating fan rituals and shared national experiences. In a similar spirit, Irn-Bru recently launched ‘Doctors,’ its comedic Euros campaign celebrating the return of optimism to Scottish football.

Election season and beyond

As the crisis of consumer trust shows no sign of slowing down, brands must tread carefully in the months ahead as political discourse continues to dominate our media platforms. The smartest brands are those awakened to the potential pitfalls on the horizon, resisting the temptation to get involved for momentary satisfaction.

In the face of AI and synthetic news, brands must recognize that real trust is built on a return to what ultimately makes us human - authentic connection. The most forward-thinking brands are those that prioritize the moments and human truths that unify us. This way, not only can they remain risk-averse, but they can pour their passion, creativity and purpose into campaigns that provide a little levity and perhaps even some escape from the negativity.

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