Brands as people: The new rules of advertising

In 2010, in a case known as Citizens United, the Supreme Court held that corporations should be afforded the same First Amendment freedoms of speech rights as people. The main outcome was that corporations were allowed to behave like private citizens, contributing unlimited money to the political campaigns of their choosing. 

Eight years later, Nike released on Twitter and other owned social media platforms a post with a single photo- graph of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick with a line of copy: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The reaction came swiftly – comments, editorials, cheers, protests, even burning shoes. 

How are these two moments connected? And what does it have to do with advertising? 

In many ways, the Nike ad was the apotheosis of an unintended consequence of Citizens United. That companies and brands now have permission (legally and symbolically) to behave exactly like people do in pushing their political and social values. 

It’s particularly relevant because it shines a light on the way that brands communicate today. The way we see brands in culture has changed; it’s become more relationship-based, more emotional and ultimately more human. We friend brands on Facebook. We follow brands on Twitter. 

We watch brand stories on Instagram. It’s a lot like what we do with our flesh-and-blood friends and acquaintances. We choose to hear as much about our friend Nancy’s delicious lunch as we do about the biting jokes from our “friend” and (burger maker) Wendy’s. 

So when Nike gets behind a controversial athlete whose protests have polarized people, our reaction is, well, very human. Many are inspired. Others are disgusted. Shoes are bought and worn proudly, some are scorched. In all cases, Nike becomes the fulcrum of pop culture conversation for weeks. Some estimates value this conversation in the hundreds of millions of media dollars. 

Of course, brands pushing their values, lifestyles and behaviors isn’t a new phenomenon. Brands have always espoused their values in mass media, hoping to influence like-minded people to buy their products. You’re in Good Hands. Think Different. Because You’re Worth It. These brands are doing more than just selling products, of course. They’re appealing to shared values — ones of community, creativity, and pride. 

But as the advertising industry continues to transform with rapid changes in technology and human behavior, we are seeing an elevated role for brands. One that is less interested in the hard sell of moving product. And one that is more interested in creating and sustaining real, true relationships. And since relationships begin and end with a human touch, brands are more inclined to use their advertising budgets to spark conversations, provoke reactions and fight for their beliefs — in much the way that real people do.


To download a full copy of the 2019 Relevance Report, click here.

A graduate of Tufts University and USC’s Cinematic Arts master’s program, David is a documentary filmmaker turned advertising Strategic Planner.  He brings a profound emphasis on storytelling, an anthropological approach to human behavior, and a critical eye for contemporary culture to the...

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