The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

When Edgy Advertising Sends the Wrong Message

by Gael O’Brien

Marketers searching for hip and edgy corporate advertising often risk reputation and close the door on social responsibility in pursuit of a breakthrough moment. It is the yearning for the green light at the end of the dock…..a place, as Fitzgerald’s Gatsby learned, that invites unexpected consequences.

Pepsi pulled a Mountain Dew ad that had been criticized for being racist and glorifying violence against women.

Recent misfires by Pepsi, Hyundai, McDonald’s, Ford and General Motors are the latest round in advertising blunders striving for humor that instead were unwrapped as offensive and insensitive stereotypes.

Learning from others whose attempts at humor have offended isn’t part of the breakthrough playbook. In 2001, Mitsubishi Motors launched its $14,000 Lancer with an ad tag line, “It must be dyslexic. It thinks it’s a $41,000 car.” At the time, I worked for Mitsubishi, and my team was on the receiving end of the hundreds of calls, letters, and faxes from organizations and parents of dyslexic children who found the ads offensive and hurtful. Many parents were either in tears or furious when they registered their protest.

I argued against continuing to run the ad to the Mitsubishi executive who approved it. But he pushed back against criticism, saying it had been created by an agency executive who had dyslexia, so how could it be offensive? That is a seductive but empty argument as the marketing folks at Pepsi’s Mountain Dew found in the backlash to the racial and domestic violence stereotyping in an ad created by Tyler The Creator, an African American rapper. After reviewing the rapper’s body of work, Syracuse University professor Boyce Watkins, who had initially called the ad “arguably the most racist ad in America,” commented “… who made the ad doesn’t change what the public sees.”

In a live online chat in May 2013, after Pepsi pulled the Mountain Dew ad, a representative responded on the company website to a question (from a friend who sent me the exchange) about how the ad could have been approved: "I do apologize for this,” said the Pepsi representative. “….We are going over our reviewal (sic) processes to prevent anything of this nature to occur again in the future, however since this is an ongoing process I do not have any specific steps to share at this moment….”

One simple suggestion for improving the review process: ask a broader pool of people what they think. When I was at Mitsubishi, the ad review process was broadened after that Lancer ad, at the request of the CEO, to include several of us who represented more diverse viewpoints so that concerns about potential fallout from edgy concepts could be heard sooner.

Beyond damage control, there is a hugely important reason why leaders from the company’s social responsibility area, ethics office and Human Resources should be included in reviewing proposed ad campaigns. While these perspectives aren’t likely to align with the priorities of those responsible for breaking “through the clutter” to sell product, any disagreements are in service of the company’s success – which aligns everyone. Out of any debate about whether edgy and hip have crossed a line is the potential for greater awareness and better decisions.

Selling products or services is the life blood of a company’s financial sustainability.  However, part of providing a sustainable environment for those products and services to be received is ensuring credibility to its stakeholders that what a company says it stands for on its website and in executive communications is also heard in the company’s advertising voice and presence.

That voice long outlasts hip and edgy’s siren song.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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