Political Polarisation in Online Debates: The Roles of Brands and Consumers


The electorate is increasingly divided in their opinions regarding political, environmental and social issues. Even scientific facts, such as human-caused climate change or the herd immunity effect of vaccinations, are often debated and counter-argued in a ‘post-truth’ society. This development has implications for brand management practice because it is not clear whether brands should take a stand and, if they do, how they should join the debate in the form of brand activism.

Consumers have come to expect brands to take a stand in favour of certain social issues (e.g., to fight climate change or to support the #metoo movement). However, when consumers do not agree with a brand’s stand or if they believe that brand activism is cause-exploitative (e.g., Pepsi’s ad supporting the Black Lives Matter movement), brands may receive backlash. Brands have to find a fine balance between engaging in online activities and staying away from socio-media challenges that those activities may bring. For example, recently, Twitter CEO posted a tweet that they will not engage in any political advertising—an activity that Twitter was previously so vocal and passionate about.

The aim of this research project is to explore how social issues are debated online when brands enter the debate, and to explore how consumers perceive the involvement of brands in controversial debates surrounding social issues. Particularly, our research aims are:

  1. Characterising the various types of brand activism and their related consumer reactions
  2. Understanding the dynamics in online debates between consumers and brands
  3. Examining boundary conditions and psychological processes affecting consumers’ reactions to brand activism
  4. Generating knowledge about how organisations should (if they decide to) approach brand activism
  5. Identifying potential long-term effects of brand activism