October surprise: When brands enter the political discussion

Where do you draw the line when mixing marketing and current events? Columnist Chris Kerns takes a look at the ways in which brands are entering the current social political chatter.

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Over the past few months, it’s grown increasingly difficult to enter a lengthy discussion without drifting into politics.

Between the Brexit debate and the US presidential election, a combination of high-stakes topics and big personalities have dominated our world during much of 2016. But the past month has shown a new level of activity for marketers to consider or disregard — brands are now getting into the discussion.

Brands have been taking advantage of real-time opportunities for a while now, long enough for the practice to have been called dead many times over. “Trendology,” my book on the data behind real-time marketing, was published almost two years ago. The truth is, we now see more brands jumping in on real-time events than ever before. And that trend, it seems, has now made its way into politics.

Here in the Spredfast Research & Insights team, we analyze billions of pieces of social content each year to find patterns and trends that matter to marketers. The social conversation around politics has been huge this year, but only recently have we seen brands talking on the subject.

We’re seeing three main ways that brands have joined the social political chatter, and each is very different in execution and risk: 1) leveraging big political events for reach; 2) reacting to real-time events; and 3) getting pulled into the discussion.

#1: Leveraging big events: Brands stealing political thunder

The first — and safest — way that brands have entered the political discussion doesn’t involve shouting about one side or the other, but simply drifting alongside the events associated with the election. For better or for worse, the debates in the 2016 presidential election have become must-watch spectacles, and we’ve seen brands take advantage, leveraging them like another tent-pole event (like the Oscars, Emmys or Super Bowl.)

This approach offers the benefit of switching out normal, perhaps sterile advertising copy with more relevant topics (which, as the data has shown, helps boost engagement with most audiences) without jumping on either side of the fence.



Audi’s campaign around the debates included social versions of their debate commercial, leveraging high production value to engage their social audience.


The breakfast staple has done a series of live Q&As during the first two debates. They received some good engagement (as well as a lot of criticism) for their efforts. Did the efforts pay off? Scroll through the responses and judge for yourself.

The San Jose Sharks

Even sports teams are leveraging political events to grab the attention of their audience.

#2: Brands reacting to real-time political events

Over the past month, a few brands have gone beyond simple references to the upcoming debates; we’ve seen them join the conversation in real time, chiming in on events as they happen.

This type of real-time marketing — one called “Opportunistic RTM” — has been a popular way for brands to try to grab headlines during big nights for pop culture over the years. But in the past, those events have never been as divisive as they have been this political season.


BarkBox decided to jump in on a micro-trend during the last debate — in response to Donald Trump mentioning 400-pound hackers — with a picture of their own.


The Twitter account for wordsmiths Merriam-Webster has been chiming in on the past few debates, doing their own version of real-time fact checking.

Paddy Power

Paddy Power, the UK betting site, has never shied away from taking a political stance on issues, and this year’s Brexit vote was no exception.

#3: Brands getting pulled in


Skittles is an example of a brand that didn’t jump into the political conversation by their own decision but felt obligated to signal some sort of response after being pulled in. When Donald Trump Jr. posted a message on social media (since removed) that likened Syrian refugees to Skittles, the candy company found a way to respond without posting on its official channels.

By working through a journalist, Skittles’ message was received loud and clear (and they haven’t chimed in since.)

Tic Tac

Tic Tac felt a need to respond after Donald Trump mentioned the brand in an October surprise video. Their response not only got more RTs than their normal levels, but it also received more engagement than any tweet by Trump in the past 90 days.

Politics vs. entertainment: Where’s your line as a marketer?

When’s the right time to mix up your marketing and bring current events into your talk track? Brands — whether they are taking a stand or being pulled into a conversation — need to judge the appropriateness of every opportunity for themselves.

What might work for one brand’s culture, tone and voice could be very out of place for another. There are no hard and fast rules with real-time marketing; the decision points are up to each team and each scenario.

But if this year’s election is showing us anything, it’s that the world is changing around us, and that includes what’s in and what’s out for marketing.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Chris Kerns
Chris Kerns has spent more than a decade defining digital strategy and sits at the forefront of extracting insights from digital data. He is the VP of Research & Insights at Spredfast, a social software platform that empowers enterprise organizations to connect with consumers in an increasingly social world. His research has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, USA Today and the The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He is also the author of Trendology, the first book to dive into the advantage brands can build using a data-driven approach to real-time marketing.

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