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On Brands and Politics

Once again the Academy Awards, shown last Sunday and traditionally a major event for advertisers, was a flop among TV viewers. Viewership dropped 19% from last year (now at 26.5 million viewers), a plunge that is far too significant to blame on "cord cutters" moving from TV to the internet.  The numbers have been falling overall for years, and the previous low was in 2008 during the Great Recession when only 32 million tuned in. But this drop is huge and thus hard for marketers to ignore. Even the charm of second-year host Jimmy Kimmel (who ironically in the early 2000's was the co-host of something most progressives wouldn't appreciate--called "The Man Show") hasn't been able to turn the tide. What gives?

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One of the reasons appears to be a growing gap between the blockbuster films that America is watching and the movies that actually win awards. In other words, too many of the winners involve films that the majority of Oscar's viewers haven't actually seen, and so they lose interest. Another reason cited was the epic mistake last year with the final award. But it's important to point out that viewers of the music awards show, the Grammy's, also dropped, and by an even greater amount this year--24% from 2017. Ouch. This is not a steady decline. What's really happening here? What do these two events have in common?

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Politics. Perhaps Mr. Kimmel, who has become rather outspoken politically on his widely-viewed late night entertainment show, is part of the problem. Over the past few years, both of these major live entertainment events have been dripping with social and environmental activism; and they were quite frankly very uncomfortable for me, and probably also for the majority of people who don't describe themselves as "liberal" or "progressive", to watch. People who don't understand this reality, including many of us in marketing, are probably still baffled as to why an improbable Donald Trump won the last presidential election. All of this suggests that advocating positions on contentious political and social issues might alienate a large portion of a product's market potential( that is all of the people with both the ability and the desire to buy a particular product) might not be such a good marketing strategy. And perhaps even the people who agree with the views espoused by what appears to be all of the celebrities on the pulpits might be growing weary of having to endure political lectures as they consume entertainment content. Have we reached a level of political fatigue?

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These numbers suggest that perhaps we have indeed, or at least it is a major factor contributing to these major declines. We do know from recent research that the drop in NFL viewership over the past few years is partly due to the player anthem protests, which do not sit well with many consumers of the NFL product. Some fans have also "taken a knee". Perhaps picking sides on controversial issues just isn't a very good idea. Since consumers do tend to filter out things with which they don't agree, as well as seek out information sources that fit their worldview, it shouldn't be surprising that a significant number of consumers would stop using a product that doesn't fit with their values. So why get political at all?

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Frankly, doing so makes no sense whatsoever to this 35-year marketing veteran. Unless you know for sure that the lion's share of your customers will agree with your position, don't take one. We can all be sure that falling viewership for both the Oscar's and Grammy's, as well as the NFL, will ultimately translate into lower prices for advertisers. It is true that, for an advertiser, there is nothing that beats the audience for a live event; but this doesn't mean that marketers will pay high prices for falling viewership.

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One thing is for sure. All of this political posturing is certainly resulting in a significant loss of customers across the board, which hurts producers, networks, advertisers, and ultimately the celebrities themselves who stand to lose from a decrease in their customer base. Perhaps everyone will soon come to the conclusion that, even though an organization or a famous person might feel strongly about a particular issue, taking a controversial position in an age of controversy is simply bad for business.


Discussion: Do you agree with the author about brands and politics? Why or why not?