As metaphors go, it’s hard to beat a wall.
So it’s no surprise that when Donald J. Trump made a border wall with Mexico a centerpiece of his Presidential campaign, advertisers and their creative agencies would be eager to seize the opportunity. Over the past year, brands such as Corona, Expedia, Celebrity Cruise Lines and Jarritos have all made ads starring some version of "The Wall," as it’s come to be known. Not surprisingly, many of them have faced criticism from Trump fans that dwarfed whatever support they received from appreciative liberal consumers.
But as the Trump presidency enters its second week, brands still keen on featuring the nation’s hottest talking point in their ads are struggling to find the right tone, terrified of what could happen if they anger customers on either side of the political divide. For an industry that is perpetually trying to insert itself into the national conversation, The Wall is looking more and more like a third rail.
"Most clients value putting things into the world that are social catalysts, that create social conversations, that have social commentary," said Paul Venables, whose agency, Venables Bell & Partners, created the wall-themed ad for Celebrity. "I think everyone is weighing, considering and deciding when, how much and what issues" can safely be included these days.
"We are all certainly in uncharted waters," he added.
The latest brand to find itself struggling with the wall is Kind Bar. According to sources with knowledge of the marketer’s advertising, the brand recently filmed a commercial with a border theme. The film—created by WPP’s Young & Rubicam—is still slated to air in the next few months, according to Kind VP of Integrated Communications Drew Nannis. But whether Trump’s wall will make an appearance is now unclear, because the brand is reconsidering the creative following last week’s Twitter spat between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, which resulted in the cancellation of their first official meeting. Y&R declined comment for this article and referred calls to Kind Bar.
A snack bar brand may seem like an odd candidate to enter the political fray. But the ad is part of the company's first national campaign, titled "The Difference Between Nice and Kind," which focuses on the brand's transparency and authenticity, said Kind Director of Communications Ashley Herendeen in a previous interview.
"Being ‘nice’ doesn’t cut it," she said. "A nice company stuffs its products with chemicals if it’ll make them taste better. A nice company starts making a gluten-free product the day it becomes trendy." But a kind company uses clear wrappers so you can see what's inside, for example. The commercial now being produced will presumably use The Wall to help illustrate that difference.
There are other reasons immigration is top of mind for the brand. Kind founder Daniel Lubetzky is the son of Holocaust survivors who fled to Mexico. Lubetzky grew up on both sides of the border, earning his degrees from both Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, and Stanford Law School.
A registered Independent, Lubetzky weighed in on Trump’s proposed border policy at the iConic: Boston conference in September 2016, saying, "I think immigrants are how we built this nation" and that he’s "grateful for what America has provided me, and I want to make sure we maintain that system that is a meritocracy, that allows anybody these opportunities."
Lubetzky isn’t the only member of his family who uses his enhanced status to inspire political change. Park Pictures confirmed that his cousin and Oscar winner Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki was directing the spot in development.
Observers are split on the wisdom of trying to address The Wall in advertisments. "Everyone’s talking about The Wall," said Robert Passikoff, founder of marketing research firm Brand Keys, which has studied Trump's brand power for the past 25 years. "I think that it’s dangerous to do because you really don’t know how people are going to react."
Fox Sports would seem to agree. First-time Super Bowl advertiser 84 Lumber initially submitted a script for a commercial that centered on the wall, but the network told them to try again.
"Fox rejected our original commercial because they determined that some of the imagery, including ‘the wall’ would be too controversial," said Michael Brunner, CEO of 84 Lumber’s agency, Brunner, in a statement after Campaign US first reported the story. "So we went back and revised the spot to make it acceptable to them."
Other brands have produced anti-wall advertising with varying degrees of blowback, depending upon their treatment of the topic and the category of the brand itself. For example, travel brands such as Expedia and Celebrity Cruises have escaped largely unharmed, in part because travel brands are expected to show images of diverse people in foreign lands.
"It’s a no-brainer for a progressive, modern, travel leader to promote going to experience other cultures, being inclusive and tearing down boundaries," said Venables.
Even though Expedia released its 60-second spot (via 180 LA) on Trump’s inauguration day, its treatment of the wall was so subtle—a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fence—and the imagery so suited to the brand that it suffered almost no public outcry.
But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t internal pushback. "Any CEO, CMO or agency person who would say they weren’t worried, would be a liar," said William Gelner, Chief Creative Officer and Managing Partner at 180 LA. "We talked about it a lot. At the end of the day, it comes down to who is running the show."
Celebrity had slightly less luck with a 30-second film from Venables that defiantly declared: "Our lives aren’t made better when we close ourselves off to the world. They’re made better when we open ourselves up to it." Shortly after the ad aired in September 2016, conservative site Truthfeed and YouTuber MightyBuster Brown encouraged their followers to boycott the cruise line. Celebrity President and CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo responded in a post on Medium, saying that a year ago, no one would’ve considered the spot controversial. Since then, Royal Caribbean, which owns Celebrity, has reported a 9 percent stock increase after beating analysts’ expectations in its latest earnings report.
But brands for whom talk of diversity and acceptance can feel like mere opportunism have found themselves becoming targets. Camera brand 360 Fly created a controversial spot in June 2016 with a Trump impersonator and actors portraying several Mexican stereotypes, including a mariachi band member and a cleaning lady. The company, which sells a 360-degree rotating camera, used Trump’s wall to demonstrate that its camera catches all angles—even what’s going on behind the President’s back during a campaign speech. Both liberals and conservatives agreed that the spot was offensive, though that hasn’t affected the product’s popularity. This month, the Sacramento Kings became the first NBA team to use Facebook 360 Live, and their camera of choice was the 360 Fly.
Then there are the Mexican brands, for whom The Wall represents a much less ambiguous threat. Prior to the election, actor Diego Luna directed a spot for Jarritos sodas with agency of record WALO Inc. that didn’t mince words: "To the immigrants who make the U.S. great, we thank you."
On Election Day, Luna stepped in front of the camera in a spot for Corona (via Leo Burnett Mexico), owned by Constellation Brands. He began the commercial speaking in Spanish and said, "All of us are angry at the wall the mad man wants us to build."
The joint effort took a year to make and targeted Mexican youth, who have "become more global and brave, yet the rest of society keeps playing the victims and blaming others for their lack of success," said agency CCO Daniel Pérez Pallares. When Trump started pushing the wall, Pérez Pallares saw it as the perfect opportunity to inspire all Mexicans to "forfeit their mental barriers and achieve any idea they put their minds to."
Although the reaction to the ad was "overwhelmingly positive," according to Pérez Pallares, the company’s stock took a post-election 8 percent nosedive because investors were worried about its Mexican ties. But it’s since bounced back and is currently $10 higher per share than in February 2016.
In September of last year, Tecate and Saatchi & Saatchi New York cheekily unveiled "The Tecate Beer Wall," which brought together beer lovers from both sides of the border. Because the ad was based in comedy—and perhaps because it came several months before the election, when Trump (and the wall) were still largely considered longshots—the brand escaped mostly unharmed.
Given the brief but rocky history of wall ads, both Kind and 84 Lumber could benefit from a surplus of caution. Neither national security nor global unity are natural topics for a health bar or a lumber company, so taking the time to strike the right tone could mean the difference between a successful spot and a PR disaster. Whether either can pull it off will become clear soon enough.
"Everyone should have the right to express themselves, but the brandscape is a more delicate ecosystem," Passikoff said. "You’re seeing many people take the easy way to a marketing approach. Someone thought that the world should be open, and you should travel. And you know what? That makes perfect sense. But I don’t think you want to do it in the context of the wall. If brands are willing to take the chance, they do it at their own peril."
Joan Voight also contributed to the reporting of this article.