Thursday, June 8, began for many by tuning Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing featuring former FBI Director James Comey testifying about his experience leading the law-enforcement agency before President Donald Trump fired him on May 9. In the age of Trump, it seems like every day brings a complicated, polarizing new issue to the forefront. Consumers are engaged and brands have had to take notice.
That’s gone well for some, less well for others.
Last February, United Talent Agency was preparing to host a lavish Oscar party in honor of its nominated clients. But one of its clients, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, wouldn’t be able to attend. The director of nominated best foreign-film The Salesman decided to boycott the awards after the Trump administration tried to enact a travel ban that would forbid people coming from seven Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, from entering the country.
That got UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer thinking. Should they host a party in a time like this? Or did it make more sense to join Farhadi in protest and sit this one out, instead donating the money the party would have cost – plus money raised in donations – to charity?
Zimmer brought the question to his board who whole-heartedly agreed. On Friday, Feb. 24, UTA hosted the United Voices rally outside of its office. Some 2,000 people showed up, including celebrities and clients Jodie Foster, Keegan-Michael Key, Kristen Wiig, Aaron Paul, Piper Perabo, Jamie Dornan and Nick Offerman. According to the Los Angeles Times, the American Civil Liberties Union and the International Rescue Committee received $320,000 in donations from the event.
It’s that kind of action that brands are taking today in light of the current political and cultural climate, in which racism and bigotry are rearing their ugly heads.
With regard to the Oscars, “we did what we felt was the right thing to do under the circumstances,” said Peter Benedek, founding partner and board member, United Talent Agency, during a panel at PromaxBDA: The Conference 2017 in Los Angeles on Thursday. “It turned into a branding exercise that reflected what we as a company and many of our clients feel about what’s going on in America right now.”
UTA’s approach toward that event worked because it was an authentic reaction to what is happening in the world. Other brands’ approaches, such as the now infamous Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner, did not work because viewers felt the spot was appropriating culture to try to sell its product instead of putting its money where its heart was.
Still, more and more brands are getting it right.
“The way companies are commenting on major issues such as health care and Paris Climate Accords, the vast majority of them are on the right side of these issues as opposed to these stupid people we elect to office,” said Benedek.
For a show like TBS’ Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, taking a stand wasn’t really an option.
“During the third debate when Trump called Hillary Clinton a nasty woman, Sam was like ‘I can’t f—king take it,’” said Kim Burdges, director of marketing and digital production for Full Frontal.
Since then, the show has used its comedy to constantly take on Trump. Most recently, Bee joined the voices of many calling for Trump to delete his Twitter account after his controversial tweets on the London terror attack.
“What is wrong with you? Were you just fulfilling your annual Ramadan tradition of hurling insults at grief-stricken Muslims named Khan?” she asked, referencing the president’s famous feud with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of a soldier who was killed in Iraq.
That stance has caused Bee to take the brunt of some Trump supporters’ ire but Brudges says it’s a price worth paying.
“In a day and age when we love that we can interact with our fans through social media, we’ve also gotten huge blowback from [our take on this]. Especially on the night of the election – that was a nasty time to follow Full Frontal or Samantha Bee,” said Brudges.
For Brad Jenkins, managing director and executive producer of Funny or Die DC, this time of citizen engagement is encouraging. Jenkins spent four years working in the Obama White House trying to encourage people to get more involved with civic life.
“A lot of my job was just trying to get people to take a stand,” he says. “It shows in a short amount of time how far we’ve come. It’s exciting that UTA did what they did and that Sam is using her platform to speak out. We should all be alarmed about what is happening with our democracy.”
Everyone on the panel said social media plays a big role in all of this. Whatever happens—whether it’s the failed Pepsi ad, the doomed Fyre Festival or Thursday’s Comey hearing—social media is there to comment immediately.
“It’s constant,” said Benedek. “It’s the 24-hour news cycle and the 24-hour social-media cycle.”
“Consumers are looking to make content and respond. They really have an active voice within the larger conversation,” said Rajiv Menon, director of cultural strategy, Civic Entertainment Group.
For Burdges and Bee, social media can be both a conversation and an argument, but it’s always a way for the weekly program to stay in touch with its viewers.
“When you take a stand—whether brand or show—and your stand is ‘we are going to hold our elected officials accountable,’ we have to be ready to follow through and respond,” said Burdges.
Jenkins put it into even larger perspective: “We would have a different president without social media. Pepsi wouldn’t have been a disaster without it.”