The Gap Hoodie: Reading the Room in Advertising

During the most drawn-out election in recent memory, brands have struggled to effectively address their followers on social media. It was a tense time, and most brands rightly chose to stay quiet and wait things out. After a particularly volatile speech from President Trump at 2 a.m., the nation was even more on edge than before. Gap, however, attempted to send a message of unity with a tweet that included a mashup of a red and blue hoodie. It read, “The one thing we know, is that together, we can move forward.”

As you can imagine, this post was immediately met with harsh criticism from all sides and soon taken down. Most responses touched on the same points: it wasn’t the right time, no one needed a brand’s take on this election and they failed to “read the room.” So, what does reading the room entail, and what can TXADPR students take away from this?

A Gap spokesperson said the goal was to “to show the power of unity. It was just too soon for this message.” While they had good intentions, the public saw this as a brand unnecessarily wading into an obviously tense, polarizing election. As Astead Herndon, a political reporter and analyst, puts it: “Why did Gap feel it was best suited to calm a nation on edge in the first place?”

Not only are these types of messages often reductive of serious political conflicts and divisions, but they tend to feel fake and opportunistic when they come from brands. The solution offered from nearly every article on this incident was: just don’t. 

When a nation is so polarized that even bland messages of unity become divisive, that’s a sign that brands and advertisers need to listen first and speak second. To Cady Lang, a writer at Time, it was reminiscent of the infamous Kendall Jenner “Pepsi” commercial as a brand message that hoped to “capitalize on the current political climate” but backfired intensely.

Lisa Lacy at Adweek agrees — it’s “not the right moment for a generic message about unity from an apparel brand.” She notes that most other brands out there have simply avoided the election on social media, focusing instead on their holiday advertising campaigns. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most retailers are starting the holidays earlier, returning to broadcast and TV and pushing online shopping deals to adapt to the moment.

It’s also key to listen because it helps a brand pivot when necessary. Clearly, Gap stuck to their planned post despite the clear tension on social media. Depending on the brand, pivoting may mean focusing on basic needs instead of value signaling or responding to trends during tense times. It also may mean taking the message of this incident to heart: sometimes, just don’t. 

When do you think brands should be a part of political moments? How do you think this election will influence the industry? Let us know @TXADPR!

Alex Pinnell