Though we’ve still got a few months to go in 2017, the marketing industry has managed to provide a bounty of controversial campaigns this year across a variety of media. These adverts call upon social issues, stereotypes and shocking content in order to turn heads – but they often garner attention for all the wrong reasons. What can a marketing agency learn from the year’s most tasteless, insensitive and puzzling adverts? Here, we take a closer look at the year’s biggest marketing flops so far to glean some crucial lessons.
Steer Clear of Appropriation
Pepsi’s recent commercial starring Kendall Jenner is one of the most conspicuous advertising fails in recent history. In the advert, Jenner is shown leaving a photo shoot to join a nondescript protest. She hands a can of Pepsi to one of the policemen as a peace offering, and a general sense of goodwill spreads among the protesters and the officers.
It doesn’t take much effort to see why this rose-coloured depiction of social justice was offensive to many. With heated and sometimes violent protests headlining the news in the US, Pepsi’s commercial seems to be taking advantage of sensitive social activism imagery to glorify their sugary beverage. Though the soft drink company could’ve used their power to raise awareness about a specific cause, they chose to create an ad that blatantly showcased Pepsi as some kind of solution for peace at large, essentially insulting the plight of people working for progress on highly complicated social issues.
Unsurprisingly, Pepsi pulled the ad within 24 hours of its premiere – and taught marketers everywhere that, when it comes to using social issues to market a product, appropriation isn’t a viable strategy.
Perpetuating Stereotypes Doesn’t Sell
In the lead-up to Easter this year, the Co-op supermarket chain released an advert that had people wondering what kind of a marketing agency in London could pitch such a cringe-worthy concept. The ad read ‘Be a good egg. Treat your daughter for doing the washing up.’ Co-op faced backlash on Twitter and in the media for reinforcing the ‘women belong in the kitchen’ stereotype, and they promptly removed the ad and apologised.
Indeed, consumers today are not enticed by marketing tactics that call upon sexism and typecasting. In a recent survey, 71% Generation Z respondents, 69% of millennials and 70% of Generation X-ers said that they prefer advertisements that show real people, not just gender stereotypes from the past. Co-op learned the hard way that implying stereotypes, whether for humour or just out of ignorance, can be damaging to a brand.
Considering the Implications Can Save the Day
This year, skincare company Dove has had two different marketing fiascos – and both could have been prevented with just a bit of forethought. In their first flop, Dove released a series of limited edition body wash bottles in different shapes, meant to call to mind different female body types. They said that the idea was to show how ‘beauty comes in all shapes and sizes’. Instead, the bottles seemed to further limit what a body ‘should’ look like, forcing women to judge their own body type when picking out a soap.
Dove’s other misstep came under their Baby Dove line’s ‘What’s Your Way’ campaign: one ad depicted a woman nursing her baby, with text that read ’75 per cent say breastfeeding in public is fine, 25 per cent say put them away. What’s your way?’ Whether Dove meant it to or not, the ad seemed to condone criticism of women breastfeeding in public – an idea that alienated many of the mothers who use their products.
If Dove had considered the implications of either of these campaigns in advance, attempting to look at them from multiple points of view, they likely would have seen how such ads could stir controversy and negative press. Marketing agencies must consider the worst-case scenario when it comes to their campaigns, as even an ad with the best intentions can be interpreted in a way that is detrimental to the brand.
Calling upon controversy in advertising is a strategy that has the power to deliver strong and effective messages – but it’s difficult to get right. One misguided idea from a digital agency in London can cause an international corporation a whole lot of grief, so be sure to learn from these disasters and consider the consequences if you decide to court controversy in your own marketing tactics.