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Jul 1, 2016 | 6 min read

Patriotic Ads and The Economics of Patriotism

Thought Leadership

By including patriotic themes in their advertising, American businesses associate their products with one of the most emotive and enduring brands of all time: the USA.

Great advertising relies upon effective design and language to forge bonds between a brand and its customers. By integrating patriotic imagery into their ads, American brands create a connection for consumers between their product and all the commonly cited virtues of the good old US of A — freedom, determination, and originality among them. Referencing American iconography typically suggests a brand’s honor and integrity, and helps stoke consumers’ loyalty to that brand by touting qualities that consumers can feel good about supporting. While there are certain brands — often those in the beer and automobile industries — that always emphasize the American-ness of their products, patriotic ads become particularly prevalent during major American holidays, from July 4th to Super Bowl Sunday.

Making Patriotism Pay

Patriotism might seem like an easy way to make a few sales around patriotic events and holidays, but in reality, it’s hard to fake national pride. Simply being manufactured in the United States is not enough for a product to earn its (red and white) stripes; brands must consciously cultivate a patriotic image among consumers.

According to Brand Keys 2015 top 50 most patriotic brands, Jeep is the most strongly associated with America at 98%, and Levi Strauss, maker of the iconic 501 blue jeans, rounds out the top five at 94%. Developed specifically for the military in World War II and still used by the armed forces today, Jeep has retained its association with true American values — despite being owned by the multinational Italian-based Fiat Chrysler corporation, and manufactured on four continents.

Brands that have played an integral role in American history are also perceived as being patriotic: Coca-Cola and Disney polled highly at 97% and 96%, respectively. Most of the top ranked brands boast longstanding ties to the American industry: Campbell’s Soup, founded in 1869, stands at 77%; Louisville Slugger, founded in 1855, stands at 88%; and Jack Daniels, founded in 1875, commands a 93% patriotism rating. One brand, however, stands out: Facebook, founded in 2003, shares the number 18 slot with L.L. Bean, beating out the NFL, MLB, and even McDonald’s.

Done right, patriotic advertising fosters a strong consumer association between a product and the best of America. However, it’s not a foolproof strategy; consumers are rightfully irate when brands attempt to capitalize on national tragedies to make a sale. After 9/11, patriotic brands faced a catch-22: proceeding without acknowledgement of the event often came off as insensitive or cynical, while several “well-meaning” attempts at respectful observance backfired.

Even more problematic are brands’ attempts to repurpose iconic patriotic imagery. In 2015, Under Armour was forced to pull a T-shirt featuring a distasteful reference to the Battle of Iwo Jima. Americans take their national iconography seriously — while this can work to a brand’s advantage, it can also be a double-edged sword.

My Country ‘Tis A Beer

While wise advertisers don’t invoke these tropes lightly, the 4th of July is widely viewed as an acceptable occasion to wear your love for your country on your sleeve, even in advertising. Patriotic movies often drop around or on July 4th itself; take Saving Private Ryan, American Sniper and Independence Day, for instance. Memorial Day is another occasion for patriotism, but is more strongly associated with sales and promotions — particularly those that pay tribute to the armed forces. In 2015, Red Lobster joined this trend, offering veterans a free appetizer with orders over $10 for the holiday weekend.

Meanwhile, Budweiser benefits from their all-American branding year round, but especially this summer: Anheuser-Busch announced that their flagship product will be rebranded as “America” from May 23rd until the November election, hoping to capitalize on the patriotism of election season. Spokesperson Ricardo Marques explained: “Budweiser has always strived to embody America in a bottle, and we’re honored to salute this great nation where our beer has been passionately brewed for the past 140 years.”

It’s no accident, however, that this rebrand coincides with the beer industry’s most profitable holiday. Across the country on the 4th of July, people celebrate with their families and communities: this year, over 158 million Americans are projected to attend a cookout or barbecue, spending an estimated $6.8 billion on food. Despite its convenient timing, this rebrand is nonetheless a bold move: the fact that Budweiser is (at least temporarily) abandoning their name indicates that they are confident relying upon their brand recognition alone.

The Fourth presents a great opportunity to reflect upon our own individual concepts of “America.” While not everyone would immediately associate the beer formerly known as “Budweiser” with the USA, the fact that well-known brands are deeply embedded in the American experience and our daily lives is undeniable. Displaying a sense of national pride coupled with respectful adherence to tradition can often be a winning combination for beloved — and lesser known — brands.

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