Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson are among the political profiles pelted by milkshakes. Will it hurt brands to be associated with these type of incidents?
Milkshaking is becoming a thing. In the run-up to the European election, several far-right personalities have found themselves drenched by frothy dairy drinks, often from McDonald’s. As the general public is busy either denouncing or celebrating the splashing of controversial figures, the question is if brands can win from being associated with political protests, even those involving the occasional milkshake.
Of course, people demonstrating their dissatisfaction with politicians by pelting them with food is nothing new. In the first century AD, Roman governor and later emperor Vespian became so unpopular after launching financial policies that people threw turnips at him. More recently, the list of politicians peppered with perishable products include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ruth Kelly, Nick Brown, John Prescott, Nick Griffin, Ed Miliband, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.
And that’s just food. George W. Bush once had shoes projectiled at him and Viscount Castlereagh had a dead cat thrown at him when he was canvassing. Both of them dodged the airborne objects.
But even though propelled provisions are nothing new, the milkshaking of far-right figures has grabbed the public’s interest. It started in early May when anti-Islam and anti-immigration activist Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, had two milkshakes in as many days thrown at him as he was out campaigning as an independent candidate for the European parliament.
After a video of the second milkshaking went viral on Twitter, other far-right personalities have also been drenched by milkshakes. UKIP’s south west England candidate for the European parliament Carl Benjamin had at the time of writing four milkshakes thrown at him.
In response to these incidents, police in Scotland asked McDonald’s to stop selling milkshakes when Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage was due to appear in Edinburgh. The fast-food franchise accepted. However, arch-nemesis Burger King didn’t seem as bothered and tweeted: “Dear people of Scotland. We’re selling milkshakes all weekend. Have fun.”
As a result, the home of The Whopper was accused of inciting violence against the Eurosceptic politician.
However, this didn’t prevent Farage from also having an ice cream-based beverage hurdled at him when he campaigned in Newcastle upon Tyne. The man tossing the milkshake was later charged with common assault and criminal damage. He is set to appear in court in June.
A few days later, Farage was said to have refused to leave his party bus after a group of protesters holding milkshakes had been spotted nearby.
Given McDonald’s has been heavily associated with the trend of milkshaking far-right figureheads, it begs the question of whether or not this will damage the brand. Martin Newman, retail and consumer expert, doubts it. “The fact that consumers have been throwing McDonald’s milkshakes at politicians doesn’t do the brand any damage – if anything, it’s free publicity,” he argues.
Kara Buffrey, senior PR account executive at Clearly PR & Marketing Communications, added: “I think McDonald’s made the right decision in revoking any involvement to the political protests. After all, they don’t want to be seen to be politically skewed.”
But what about Burger King’s cheeky tweet? “You can’t fault Burger King’s PR strategy,” Buffrey continues. “It’s light-hearted, fun, bantery and who are their target market? 18–34-year olds who are fluent in this kind of modern language. As far as they’re concerned, they aren’t encouraging troublesome behaviour, they’re simply taking another dig at McDonald’s.”
Even though slates between the two rivals have been common throughout the years, some believe Burger King’s tweet might cost the restaurant chain. “I think it’s fairly cynical marketing ploy that is very risky,” argues Newman. “It would potentially appeal to existing Burger King customers, as one is normally a fan of either the Big Mac or the Whopper and not both. However, milkshakes were in the main being thrown by remainers or those who don’t like the likes of Nigel Farage. My instinct is that there will be more of his supporters who are customers of Burger King than remainers and therefore they could take offence to [Burger King’s] tweet and switch their allegiance. McDonald’s on the [other] hand was simply doing what the police asked them to do, stop selling milkshakes, which wouldn’t have a negative impact upon consumers, irrespective of their political leaning.”
Still, leveraging political causes can benefit brands. For instance, Nike caused some controversy in September 2018 when it picked American football player Colin Kaepernick as the face of its new Just Do it campaign. The NFL athlete had previously inspired both condemnation and support by kneeling during the national anthem to protest against racial injustice. “It was a very calculated risk by the sports brand,” suggests Michael Scantlebury, director and founder of Impero, the creative agency.
Indeed, while social media was tsunamied for a few news cycles with videos and pictures of people burning their Nike gear, the buzz around the campaign amounted to $43m worth of media exposure within the first 24 hour and even added $6m to the company’s market value. “[Nike] carefully selected a moment in time to attach themselves to and the result was POTUS tweeting about the brand – global recognition,” explains Scantlebury. “It was a short-term campaign that provided long-term dividends, both financially and for its brand values.”
Nike’s campaign and the milkshaking of far-right figureheads comes at a time when more businesses and their leaders are openly taking a stand for their political beliefs. In the past, Salesforce’s CEO and founder Marc Benioff has opposed anti-LGBT legislation, Starbucks CEO and presidential hopeful Howard Schultz has launched a campaign for gun control, ahead of the 2016 US election 146 Silicon Valley leaders argued that Donald Trump would be a disaster for innovation and in the UK corporate head honchos have debated both for and against Brexit.
However, CEO activism and using political movements to boost your brand could backfire. “Pepsi famously received an intense backlash following their Kendall Jenner advert – the ad itself was said to simplify and dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement,” argues Buffrey. “The last thing you want is negative feedback when trying to cover a sensitive topic.”
She concludes: “Brands have a lot of power and responsibility to spread awareness of important movements such as diversity, poverty and environmental awareness. However, many should remember that their voice is dwarfed by the ever-increasing public voice – maximised through social media outlets. They will be the real critics that you will be held accountable to.”