Is marketing driven by culture, or is culture driven by marketing?

U.S. culture—and brands—have been awash in rainbow imagery since the Supreme Court passed same-sex marriage in June.

U.S. culture—and brands—have been awash in rainbow imagery since the Supreme Court passed same-sex marriage in June.

For at least the past half-century, marketing and culture have been intertwined, like vines running up the side of a building. It’s sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Just think about the Super Bowl—one of the most popular American sporting events of the year. For most of us, the commercials are as just as much a part of the experience as the game.

So, does marketing drive culture or culture drive marketing? At the risk of sounding like a disappointing, spineless wuss, you can make a reasonable case either way. I can think of a number of campaigns that bore their way into our collective consciousness and became part of our daily vocabulary, humor, and cultural fabric—even if was just for a short time. (Beer commercials have a particular talent for this.)

Then, there’s the endless parade of social media and internet memes that gain a second life in marketing campaigns—like Grumpy Cat for Friskies and Honey Badger for Wonderful Pistachios.

I was thinking about all of this with the recent U.S. Supreme Court vote to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states. As I write this, there are 20 countries that legally approve same-sex marriage nationwide. It appears to be a growing trend worldwide.

I watched my Twitter feeds fill up with #LoveWins tweets, and Facebook friends from across the globe apply the rainbow color tool to their profile pictures (done by more than 26 million Facebook members, according to the company). Of course, there were dissenting voices—but the vast majority of what I saw online were supportive of the court’s vote. This ties to recent research by the Pew Research Center, which finds that nearly 60% of Americans, overall, support same-sex marriage. (Numbers do vary by generation, religious affiliation, political party, etc.)

What really got my attention was how brands responded to the Supreme Court vote. I would expect certain companies to react positively to the decision, based on their audience, market, products, etc. But then, others that I didn’t quite expect made it a clear point to show their support, too.

From MasterCard:

MasterCard Tweet

From Target:

Target Tweet

And from Maytag:

Maytag Tweet

OK, out of these three, I can see Target supporting same-sex marriage—but MasterCard and Maytag?!? They seem less likely, but are they any less likely than any other brand? Why not them?

Same-sex relationships in marketing aren’t only just showing up on Twitter, either. Over the past few years, there have been many television commercials featuring same-sex couples in everything from HoneyMaid graham crackers to Chobani yogurt.

Granted, none of this is new. Several years back, a few progressive and more daring brands started planting themselves squarely in certain social positions. Betty Crocker was one, with its Families Project. The brand openly addressed and celebrated the changing demographics of American families, including same sex, mixed race, single parent, adopted, multi-generational and more. The effort subtly, and sometimes not-so-subtly, challenged the notion and image of a traditional family model.

Political, religious, or social viewpoints aside, it’s safe to say that marketing is reflecting the majority of American culture, at least on the issues of same-sex relationships, the view of family roles and structure, and more. I can think of several hypotheses for this, some driven by cynicism, others by reality, still others by observation…

Millennials are a large group, coming into their own. Nearly all data shows them to be more progressive on social issues. This generation also grew up online and is generally unafraid to express itself there. The oldest Millennials are approaching their mid-30s and starting to have managerial and leadership roles in companies—which may explain why brands are more progressive, too.

Companies know where their futures lie. A predominant part of our culture is about not looking outdated. Brands have to think about this, too. By not supporting (or being silent) on current, popular issues, you may render yourself obsolete to a Millennial generation that often judges brands by the values they portray and support. This may sound very Machiavelli of me, but isn’t it smarter, from a business standpoint, to align yourself with an up-and-coming majority?

Maybe they really do care about these issues and want to influence public opinion. Reflective of the American populace, many brands may have a majority of employees who support various progressive social issues. And we live in a time where customers expect companies to take stands, have opinions, and state their missions. This is an incredible change, unthinkable even just a few years ago.

I wish I had an answer for the perpetual, protein-packed chicken-and-egg riddle of marketing vs. culture. If anything, they seem to ignite each other now more than ever—in a perpetual exchange of creating the mainstream.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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