The only bad publicity is no publicity,” often attributed to P.T. Barnum, might’ve been true in the 1800’s when he was rolling through cities with a circus, but as technology, tastes, awareness, and social consciousness evolve brands are finding that bad publicity is just bad publicity. Case in point: the elephants that featured so prominently in the Barnum and Bailey Circus are now banned in several states as our collective awareness of animal treatment changes.
It seems like every other day there’s another marketing effort gone sideways for a brand’s representation of women, people of color, gender, history or culture. In 2017 Dove had an ad that seemed to suggest an African American woman was “shedding her skin” into a white woman. The Washington Post ran with a headline, A Dove ad showed a black woman turning white. The backlash is growing. Pepsi seemed to appropriate the Black Lives Matter movement while inserting itself into a social climate of protest and discord with an ad where celebrity Kendall Jenner appears to make everything better with Pepsi. The LA Times said Cringe-worthy Pepsi ad uses Kendall Jenner, protests and police to sell soda. And it’s not just big brands – a small coffee shop in Colorado advertised with a placard that read, “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014.” It quickly became national news, as these things do, when neighborhood residents posted pictures and objections to social media, even leading to protests and marches.
Marketing events like this can stain a brand for a long time (just google “Dove ad” and see what comes up first), and strain company resources to deal with the fallout and repair. Let’s look at three ways to avoid diversity disasters in your company’s marketing.
Diversify Your Team
The running commentary in situations like those described above is, “Imagine how many people had to say yes for this to get to be on TV,” or “How did nobody see this and stop it before it made it in a commercial?” The issue isn’t who did see it in its development – it’s who didn’t see it. In the case of the Denver coffee shop proudly gentrifying its neighborhood, the owner apologized in a Facebook post, saying in part, “When our advertising firm presented this campaign to us, I interpreted it as taking pride in being part of a dynamic, evolving community that is inclusive of people of all races, ethnicities, religions and gender identities. I recognize now that we had a blind spot to other legitimate interpretations.” He simply misunderstood what gentrification meant beyond its literal definition, or didn’t account for what it means to others – particularly those in the neighborhoods his company serves.
We can almost always operate from the position that nobody making these marketing decisions intends to offend, but that’s not enough. To avoid blind spots, as the coffee shop owner says, you have to improve your vision. This comes from having a lot of different perspectives on your marketing teams, including social backgrounds, genders, ages, orientations, experiences. You want people to see things differently and add their insight to the collective. This takes diversity. In this case, the ad agency bears the responsibility in its initial ideation, and then the coffee-shop owner would have benefited from a diverse review team that could have helped his vision improve.
The first job of great marketing is to listen. Get to know your customers and your marketplace. What are they experiencing? How does whatever you’re offering help, or inspire, or otherwise impact whatever they’re experiencing? Now how can you better tell that story? Understanding that requires input and awareness from who you’re doing business with. So, get involved. Conduct surveys, knock on doors, pick up the phone, send emails. This is the stuff of market research.
Yet, brands like Pepsi who have all the resources in the world and have conducted all kinds of market research still find themselves in hot water sometimes. Pepsi’s response to the Jenner ad included, “”Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize.” It’s important for marketers to take risks and that means sometimes they’ll make mistakes And high five for Pepsi wanting to do good and spread positivity. But it’s doubtful many Pepsi drinkers are looking for the brand to be the agent of a “global message of unity, peace, and understanding” – which means for them to make that point they’ll have to do something really compelling. This is also where having a diverse marketing team can help you determine where you might have blind spots.
Flip the Script
It can be a valuable exercise, once you have your campaign storyboarded out or your script written, to suddenly replace your cast of characters as an internal exercise. Imagine a Black woman in your commercial reading the lines originally intended for the man. Maybe the happy young husband and wife walking on the beach are really an elderly gay couple. Replace pronouns like “his” and “hers” with non-gender-specific words like “they” and “theirs.” Does the ad still work? Does it work even better? An exercise like this can help you uncover bias you might not have intended, or objectification, or to simply see things through a different lens.
Then look at your marketing in totality. Are you under-presenting women or people of color? Are you objectifying or stereotyping? Is every Millennial in your marketing holding a smartphone and every Baby Boomer playing with grandchildren? Are all the businessmen white? Is the mom always cooking or cleaning and the dad always working? Is the little girl always playing princess while the little boy is off with race cars? It’s common to see tired tropes that don’t represent or reflect today’s society – or your marketplace. Avoiding these requires an informed perspective and behaviors tuned to conscious inclusion.
Demonstrating diversity in marketing has to be intentional, and mistakes usually happen when we lack intention. Think about how you can create a better climate for more and different perspectives, ideas, people and opinions in your marketing creative, strategies and execution.
Chris Bintliff is a marketing consultant and leader who serves The Kaleidoscope Group.