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Head & Shoulders’ Trump Video Proves That Brands Should Maybe Not

When should brands weigh in on political moments?

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Much was made Tuesday of President Trump’s “bromance” with French President Emmanuel Macron during the latter’s official state visit. The two leaders kissed, touched shoulders, and held hands. One particular moment, however, stood out as particularly cringeworthy.

During a joint press conference in the Oval Office, Trump said to Macron as the press looked on: “They’re all saying what a great relationship we have, and they’re actually correct. It’s not fake news. ... We do have a very special relationship. In fact, I’ll get that little piece of dandruff off. We have to make him perfect. He is perfect.” He then proceeded to brush something off the other president’s jacket, while Macron, to his credit, continued smiling and did not attempt a retaliatory, “Oh, but you have a piece of lettuce in your teeth,” or whatever.

Now, I’m no diplomacy expert, but this has to be a breach of some sort. It was definitely awkward. The Washington Post had a body language expert weigh in, and she compared it the moment to “primate grooming.” She added, “It said, ‘We have an intimate relationship, but I’m dominant, I’m the alpha gorilla, I’m going to groom you. But I’m going to criticize you by saying you have dandruff, and I’m going to do that on the world stage and see how you handle that.’”

Enter Head & Shoulders, the popular drugstore dandruff shampoo brand. It quickly whipped up a video for its Twitter account:

The video shows someone packing up a box of dandruff shampoo to be sent to the French Embassy. Haha?

The video, posted toward the end of Tuesday, has not had the virality the company was likely hoping for. The brand has almost 52,000 Twitter followers; as of now, the video has only 68 likes, 29 retweets, and a little over 1,500 views. The 10 comments on the tweet skew toward partisan lines, something that was probably inevitable in this case. One says: “you may have been told that this is brilliant marketing but this endorsement of the knuckledragger-in-chief’s boorishness, to put it mildly, is pretty awful.” And another: “Hahaha ... nice work. Dont worry about the butthurt libs, had this happened under obama many, many of us would still commend.” (Racked has reached out to Head & Shoulders and will update when we hear back.)

It is truly a gamble for a brand to try to capitalize on a particular zeitgeisty political moment, and Head & Shoulders seems to have failed here — although perhaps it can be viewed as a win since the video was mostly ignored rather than widely panned, a much worse outcome. (See: Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ads.)

In the Ad Age newsletter this morning, Angela Doland said, “In a fraught political moment, it isn’t easy to find the right tone for this kind of thing, and Head & Shoulders played it safe. There were snarkier jokes to be made. Maybe ‘Saturday Night Live’ will make them.” The big question, though, is should brands be the ones making the jokes? Most are really bad at it. Macron was in the US to discuss serious issues like the Iran deal and Syria, and a gaffe by our president that was widely viewed as a dominance play (or just really terrible manners) probably shouldn’t be capitalized on by brands.

Denny’s is probably one of the few brands that have pulled off a social media stunt like this successfully, with its existential dread messaging in a pile of pancakes in early 2017. It was just vague enough that it wasn’t partisan, and it had an absurdity that made it really fun.

Finally, what do the French think about all this? I reached out to Clémence von Mueffling, a Parisian who runs a website called Beauty and Well Being and has a forthcoming book called Ageless Beauty the French Way: Secrets from Three Generations of French Beauty Editors. She was game to weigh in on the dandruff controversy.

“It is so funny because I have been watching non-stop French news since Macron is in the US, and the French media did not comment on that,” she wrote in an email, referring to the dandruff brush-off. “However, it was all about Melania’s hat and the fact that Macron was still able to give her two kisses on her cheeks!”

I also wondered if dandruff was taboo there. “Dandruff is not taboo in France, although we prefer to avoid it of course and use a special shampoo if needed,” she said.

In the meantime, I’m waiting for French shampoo’s retort.