In January, the focus of WARC’s Spotlight US was “Marketing in a polarized nation,” which examined the issues dividing the country – and what brands should do about them. WARC's US Commissioning Editor Cathy Taylor writes that three months into the presidency of Joe Biden, the US, and brands, are not getting a reprieve.

Perhaps, if you look at the US from the outside, the relatively calm (and tweet-free) presidency of Joe Biden could lead one to the belief that the political polarization in the US has calmed down, and that marketers can revert back to a less controversial form of brand purpose that doesn’t involve picking sides.

But recent events have made it ever more clear that brands will continue to be thrust into the political spotlight at moments of contention – be it matters of national debate, or lightning-rod issues in states and cities where they have a significant presence.

New voting laws force brands to show their colors

The issue currently at hand is a rash of proposed voting laws, most of which will limit access to voting, whether by restricting polling hours, reducing or eliminating ballot dropoff boxes, or any number of other creative “solutions” to address what the Department of Justice and election officials agree is a completely bogus problem – namely, election fraud.

Such moves track back to what political observers call “The Big Lie”, or the assertion by former President Donald Trump, and many of his Republican supporters, that fraudulent voting led him to lose the 2020 presidential election, and placed Biden in the White House.

These initiatives, largely Republican-led, currently total more than 350 bills nationwide, and, critics argue, primarily disenfranchise minority communities who are more likely to vote for Democrats (even in national elections, the particulars of the voting process are left to the states).

Though most of these measures are proposals at this point, one of the earliest legislative moves to pass was Georgia’s Senate Bill 202, which became law in late March.

According to a New York Times analysis, this bill restricts voting in 16 different ways. Most attention was given to the restriction on food or drink, making it a crime to give either to people waiting in line to vote, under the premise that the giver might sway the receiver. What was left unsaid is that lines to vote are much longer in non-white neighborhoods.

This legislation also calls for stricter ID rules, shortened time for requesting absentee ballots, the effective banning of mobile voting centers, and a substantial reduction in the drop boxes for ballots.

Which side are you on?

It stands to reason that Georgia Republicans would lead the charge to upend voting rules – not only did the state flip to the Democrats during the presidential election, but it also gave them control of the Senate.

The voting law also (eventually) pulled several corporations into a fractious debate.

Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, two of the biggest brands that call Georgia home, were pressured to denounce the law, and they did – albeit after some earlier milquetoast statements simply in support of voting rights. Major League Baseball, which had planned to hold July’s All-Star game in Truist Park in suburban Atlanta, also relocated this high-profile event to Colorado.

There are few things more American than Coke and baseball, so these moves brought the wrath of Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, and the most powerful Republican in Washington. He said: “My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics … You know, Republicans drink Coca-Cola, too. And we fly. And we like baseball.” (“I’m not talking about political contributions,” McConnell further noted).

But many in corporate America remain undeterred. On Saturday, April 10, approximately 100 CEOs convened on a conference call to plan a strategic response to this new wave of voting laws, which could ultimately include holding back political donations and investment in states that pass laws meant to suppress voting among minority communities.

This group of executives also issued a statement, under the banner “We Stand for Democracy”, that was signed by, among others, Target, Bank of America, Apple, Cisco, Berkshire Partners, American Express, Netflix, Nordstrom, McKinsey, Ford, General Motors, Instacart and Johnson & Johnson. (But not, interestingly enough, by Delta or Coca-Cola.)

Their joint statement appeared as a two-page spread in The Washington Post and The New York Times, and included the following declaration: “Voting is the lifeblood of our democracy and we call upon all Americans to join us in taking a nonpartisan stand for this most basic and fundamental right of all Americans.”

Silence is a political statement

There’s a lot to unpack here. For one, it’s another breach in the long-standing alliance between traditional “Big Business” and the Republican Party, which historically has been considered as pro-business because of its anti-tax, anti-regulation policies.

Second, it’s about the recognition by many brands that America is moving towards a majority-minority nation, and that disenfranchising minority voters is a bridge too far. If you’re picking sides, go with the bigger one, and the one that has the most momentum.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I’d argue it doesn’t so much represent brands embracing values and purpose as it does a moving of the goalposts in the political realm.

More specifically, it used to be unthinkable for an American political party to so overtly challenge the voting process, and to do so under false premises. And it is no coincidence that the CEOs’ statement talks not about Republicans or Democrats, but the integrity of democracy itself. Given the current flirtation with authoritarianism in countries throughout the world, brands outside of the US should take notice; they may soon find themselves in a similar situation.

In a Wall Street Journal Opinion piece last week, Harvey Golub, a former chief executive of American Express, decried the CEOs’ moves, saying it’s wrong for companies “to take a… position on public-policy questions that don’t directly affect their business” and that making statements “on purely political issues will alienate many of their employees and customers.”

And he got it exactly wrong: in the view of many, meddling with democracy is to meddle with business, and, as consumers increasingly vote with their wallets, saying nothing about policies that disenfranchise stakeholders such as employees and customers is a powerful statement.

And, right now, that‘s not a statement many brands want to make.