Let’s Talk About Pandering

Thought Leadership

Written by We Are Social U.S. Associate CM Director Andy Barnett

Pandering, in my definition, is a term used to describe the deliberate manipulation of a message or product in order to resonate with an intended audience. For example, few things are as reliable as the pandering that occurs in country music. Include a line about a dirt road/cold beer/blue jeans, and you have a hit song geared towards the working class that is most likely being performed by a wealthy artist (cue Bo Burnham’s parody country song). As I type this, the current number one song in country music is by Luke Combs and includes the lyrics “We’ve been burnin’ both ends, keepin’ the lights on.” Luke Combs has an estimated net worth of $5 million.

Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think Luke is kept up at night worrying about how he’s going to pay his electric bill.

In advertising, pandering is never more prominent and aggressive than it is in the month of June. The accelerated popularity of Pride Month over the past few years has paved the way for brands to shapeshift into what they think the audiences celebrating this month want to see. As a member of both the LGBTQ+ and advertising communities, I intently watch companies throughout the month, particularly how they portray themselves on social media. In its most egregious form, brands that are documented as having donated to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians decide to get in on the game. A 2021 study put 25 companies on blast for donating to these politicians while simultaneously “supporting” the LGBTQ+ community on social channels. In the case of AT&T, they Tweeted the below while simultaneously donating more than $63,000 to state lawmakers sponsoring legislation that targets LGBTQ+ people, including LGBTQ+ youth.

Then we have this year’s Nascar “YASCAR” Tweet. Of course, we don’t have to go further than the replies section of this Tweet to see that posts like this generate backlash from their core consumers who disagree with any sort of stance that reference “leftist” ideals (no matter how hollow the stance might be).

At the same time, I can attest that this Tweet in particular was roasted amongst my own circle. In an instance where an attempt to pander falls flat on both sides, we have to ask “who does this serve and to what end?”

In general, jokes regarding “Corporate Pride” have run rampant in the LGBTQ+ community for years. In the past I’ve seen Pride referred to as “Pride: Sponsored by Chase Bank.” This year, humor regarding brands and Pride reached a new peak thanks to TikTok. The “…which is why this Pride month, I’m proud to partner with…” trend hit the platform hard in mid-June, with many users mocking the lengths corporations will go to in order to make Pride relevant to their brand – specifically via partnership with LGBTQ+ creators. 

So, what’s the solution when the audience wisens up and is no longer falling for empty gestures and lip service? The answer is simple: put your money where your mouth is and infuse inclusion into the core of your brand, ensuring activation on that notion year round. Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty is a prime example of this. From the jump, Savage x Fenty has put inclusion at the forefront of their ethos. Many even hail their fashion shows, which encompass models of various gender identities and sizes, as the not-so-silent killer of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. When Savage x Fenty posts about Pride you know they mean it.

Additionally, brands should be working outside of their organizations in order to genuinely and earnestly connect to the communities they’re speaking to. Christopher Miller, Head of Global Activism Strategy at Ben & Jerry’s said it best: “I can’t overstate the importance of a network of people outside the company to keep you grounded in what it is you’re doing and how you should be framing it.” 

With that, I leave one final message to brands that pander: your audience is smarter than you think and no amount of logo changes on June 1 will erase your inaction from July 1 onward.