6 Socially Charged Ads That Caused a Stir

Controversial spots from Nike, Airbnb and more

Brands are more outspoken than ever. - Credit by Budweiser, T-Mobile, Airbnb, Nike, Ben & Jerry's
Headshot of Molly St. Louis

Social media has changed the way brands interact with consumers.

Audiences now have a means to talk back to brands and voice their opinions; smart brands listen and respond. This has led to deeper conversations and has strengthened B2C relationships in some remarkable ways.

Today, the conversations are richer than ever and go well beyond discussing products. Brands are capitalizing on their customer relationships to make social change through advertising.

Here are a few prime examples.


Colin Kaepernick has become an icon of resistance, polarizing NFL fans and inciting venomous tweets from the White House for his peaceful protests against police brutality.

On the heels of Kaepernick losing his place in the NFL, Nike surprised the public by making Kaepernick the star of its 2018 Just Do It Campaign. The commercial features athletes of all levels and abilities striving for greatness. Kaepernick is among them—not pictured playing sports like everyone else, but walking down a dark street, sending a deliberate message. “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” he says.

The spot caused both mass support and outrage. Some fans of Kaepernick posted on social that they had never bought anything from Nike before, but now they would, while some former Nike fans threatened to burn their shoes and never buy again. The conversation continues.


The Syrian refugee crisis and the profound backlash it caused prompted Airbnb to send a very clear message of acceptance. Last year, without mentioning the president or the specific refugees, Airbnb aired a commercial featuring diverse faces blending into one another with a the message “No matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, you deserve to belong.”

The ad received its fair share of hate on social media, especially in light of reports about certain Airbnb hosts turning away African American renters. However, the response was widely positive and even former Attorney General Eric Holder and former Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted their support of the ad.


Last year, Budweiser launched an ad during the Super Bowl that detailed the personal story of its immigrant co-founder, Adolphus Busch. The commercial chronicles the horrifying conditions Busch endured to get to America, from bigotry to dangerous ship accidents, and how he followed his dream through the whole journey.

Since immigration is always a hot topic in the U.S., the beautifully crafted commercial was met with mixed reviews, prompting a new hashtag #boycottbudwiser. Yes, the hashtag was spelled wrong, which became a hilarious talking point among numerous avid supporters of the brand and its message.

84 Lumber

Budweiser isn’t the only company to take on the topic of immigration. Last year, 84 Lumber launched an immigration-focused ad after Trump’s “build a wall” conversation. That one is longer, more pointed and even more of a tearjerker.

The story focuses on a Mexican mother and small daughter on their long journey to the United States. After a rollercoaster of hope, fear and exhaustion they finally get to the border to discover a huge wall blocking them from entering.

The devastated mother wildly looks around and eventually sees a huge door. The message onscreen reads: “The will to succeed is always welcome here.”

This spot literally crashed 84 Lumber’s website because they received so many visitors looking for the director’s cut of the beautiful commercial. The sentiments were mixed. On the one hand, some viewers bashed 84 Lumber for supporting illegal immigration, on the other, fans praised the brand for making a statement.

Ben & Jerry’s

Ben & Jerry’s took the 2015 United Nations climate summit as an opportunity to discuss climate change in an effective commercial that illustrates global warming with ice cream melting.

As is the theme with socially-charged campaigns, this spot was polarizing. Supporters of the cause rallied behind the brand and others tried to debunk the scientific claims made in the commercial.

Controversy doesn’t seem to impact Ben & Jerry’s, a company that is not shy about taking a political stand. In more recent years, the brand faced boycott threats after openly supporting Black Lives Matter. Despite the controversy, it continues to push the envelope and campaign for justice.

@MollStLouis Molly St. Louis is a freelance writer for Adweek.