Trade Wars, Ad Campaigns, and Tackling Issues that Matter

You can be forgiven for not knowing where exactly the U.S. stands on foreign trade day-to-day, with talk of everything from trade wars to truces.  Yet the shifting economic climate poses a significant challenge to industries trying to market themselves at home and abroad - along with the creative agencies who support them.  

The latest news headlined a temporary agreement with the Chinese, but details remain vague.  Nor can anyone predict how economic relations with Mexico and Canada would be affected if the U.S. insists on renegotiating Nafta.  Throw sanctions against Russia and North Korea into the mix and, well, you get the picture.  

The unpredictable environment not only adds to the difficulty of advertising in countries like China that lack reliable market research, but raises the prospect of tariffs that may either help or hurt businesses and consumers at home, depending on your point of view.  Brands eager to expand in China — from Boeing and Tesla to McDonald’s and Starbucks — may ultimately be forced to reconsider their plans or find innovative solutions by strengthening local relationships in focus markets.  

In the meantime, many U.S. companies on both sides of the debate are making their voices heard and, in a relatively new twist, taking their messages straight to the White House.  

The National Retail Federation, for instance, projected how tariffs could cause the loss of thousands of jobs and, citing one example, potentially spike the price of Chinese-made televisions by 25 percent.  As part of a campaign to address the issue, the NRF produced a 30-second video ad featuring comedian/commentator Ben Stein, purchasing air time during “Fox & Friends,” “Roseanne,” and “Saturday Night Live”.  In the ad, Stein reprises his role as an economic teacher in the 1980’s cult classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, who dryly recounts how the Hawley-Smoot Tarriff Act of 1930 didn’t work.  The current ad features Stein back at the front of the classroom announcing in his trademark monotone voice, “Tarrifs raise taxes on hard-working Americans.  It’s not complicated. Tariffs are B-A-D economics, bad economics. Bad.”

Others in the fight for and against tariffs include manufacturing, solar and farming lobbyists, all of whom unveiled their own White House-targeted advertising campaigns in recent months.  And it’s not at all unheard of. Under President Obama, an avid sports fan, Microsoft ran ads during Monday Night Football that questioned Google’s business practices as federal regulators considered bringing charges against the tech company.  

Similarly, the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil and gas industry trade group, ran a 30-second Super Bowl ad lobbying President Trump to ease energy regulations. “You have a president, it’s no secret, who likes to watch television,” said Evan Tracey, Senior Vice President of National Media Research, Planning & Placement, a Republican media firm. “From an advertising standpoint, you always want to sort of go where the ducks are.”  David French, the National Retail Federation’s Chief Lobbyist, agreed, telling The New York Times, “There’s really an audience of one in [tariff] decision-making.”

Among other moves, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers recently ran a 30-second ad on “Fox & Friends,” “Morning Joe” and “Hannity” featuring manufacturing employees warning that tarriffs will hurt their industries and make it harder to compete globally.  The News Media Alliance and Stop Tariffs on Printers & Publishers Coalition also provided ads for newspapers to run on the negative consequences of recent tariffs imposed on Canadian imports of uncoated groundwood paper, including newsprint.

A coalition of U.S.-based solar manufacturers, U.S. Made Solar, ran a seven-figure TV ad campaign urging the president against issuing tariffs on cheap solar imports. And a national television ad produced by Farmers for Free Trade appeared on Fox, CNN and MSNBC in Washington and Florida, where Trump spends weekends at his Mar-a-Lago golf resort.  “The crops that we grow here on this farm are exported across the globe,” Montana farmer Michelle Erickson-Jones says in the ad. “Policies that restrict trade would be devastating for farms like ours.”

At the same time, supporters of tariffs — including US manufacturers of steel aluminum — have backed ads on three cable news networks including MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News. “President Trump, America’s workers are depending on you,” urged the Alliance for American Manufacturing in an advertisement that aired in February. Scott Paul, President of the Alliance, which funded the six-figure ad buy, told Politico: “We hope the president will see the ad and approves of the message.”

That direct-to-Pennsylvania-Avenue strategy may work. Retailers and others, including Tea Party Nation, used a similar approach last year to try to kill a type of broad tax on imported goods that they claimed would hit consumers hard.  

The National Retail Association’s ad, which aired in March 2017 in the key markets of New York, Washington, D.C., and Florida, featured a smiling salesman pitching a product that would cause the cost of cars, food, clothing and medicine to skyrocket.  “The all new BAT tax is specially designed to make your disposable income disappear!” he said.

In the end, the proposal was shelved