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What Advertising Missteps Can Teach us About Multicultural Marketing

Denvol Haye

The last few years have brought us numerous examples of “advertising gone wrong” as some brands, unintentionally or not, have created some culturally insensitive, tone-deaf and downright offensive advertising campaigns. Yes, as the world continues to become more diverse, marketers and advertising teams will be continually tasked with developing content that appeals to multicultural populations. Even still, they must walk a fine line of creating campaigns that are engaging and culturally relevant, without alienating or offending any one group.

Let’s take a look at a few of the most controversial advertisements of the last few years, then discuss how having a multicultural perspective could have saved these brands a lot of time, money and frustration.

  1. Nivea’s “White is Purity” campaign – An example of an overly-creative, under-supervised ad team that wasn’t thinking about (or likely reflective of) the general population. To some, the ad perpetuated the idea white skin is flawless. A notion that many did not approve of as thousands quickly took to social media and censured the brand for this ad.
  2.  “Try My Bowls” by Jack In The Box - If the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it is that issues related to abuse of power and harassment are more prevalent across society than we could have imagined…not sure Jack In The Box got the message. “Try My Bowls” was a reminder that there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of sensitivity and awareness of larger societal issues.
  3. H&M’s “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” – This instance of cultural insensitivity was almost humorous, as I truly believe it could have been avoided if the right voices were in the room to raise this as a major red flag. I’ll give H&M the benefit of the doubt that this was not done intentionally, but it’s time to get serious about including diverse people at the table to ensure these instances are caught before they ever leave creative's desk.
  4. Pepsi’s Live for Now Moments Anthem – Pepsi’s ad was an example of a brand’s tone-deafness to a movement as powerful as “Black Lives Matter.” Hard to believe that this made it through so many rounds of feedback and production and no one thought this could potentially be an issue. Perhaps this criticism fell on deaf ears, or no one ever thought to speak up in the first place.

All of these brands have in some way apologized and taken responsibility for their missteps, though it’s important to keep in mind the long term impact these ads can have on a brand's reputation and how hard it can be to recover. Unless real action is taken, and we begin to include those we wish to market to at the brainstorming table, instances like the above will continue to take place.

It’s worth noting that there are brands that are getting it right. Take Procter & Gamble’s “The Talk” advertisement, which spoke volumes to some of the challenges African Americans face in the U.S. The ad was celebrated by individuals as it was authentic, relatable and brought light to the racial biases many deal with on a daily basis.   

I believe brands are waking up and are now seeing the impact that diverse perspectives, or lack thereof, can have on their efforts to appeal to various groups. That’s step one. Other steps they can take:

  1. When a brand decides it’s time to embark on some form of multicultural outreach, it’s first important to truly understand what they mean by “multicultural.” I believe this term has become jargon as it’s often used in the wrong context, speaking in general terms about reaching Hispanic, African American, or Asian American audiences. However, we know as communications professionals and marketers that “multicultural” consists of multiple cultures (and sub-cultures) and it’s our job to help clients pinpoint exactly who they’re trying to reach.
  2. Once that’s been established, it’s important to ensure the right people have seats at the table to help inform marketing campaigns and anticipate any negative backlash from diverse communities. Generally speaking, marketing and communications teams should reflect the communities in which they wish to serve. According to U.S. census data, minorities make up 41% of the US population (and growing) so we need to ensure our folks shaping external communications/marketing efforts reflect that.
  3. This last point is more related to organizational culture, but is equally as important to this discussion, and is about encouraging people to speak up and flag instances that could result in negative backlash. As a minority at the table, it’s easy to feel marginalized and to be afraid to voice your opinion. I can’t help but think that in some of the previous examples, someone along the way raised an eyebrow at the content, but didn’t feel empowered to let their voice be heard. As professionals we can’t be afraid to have real, sometimes uncomfortable, conversations to develop messaging that resonates with diverse consumers. Organizations should create a safe space to have these conversations.

At a recent panel discussion hosted by the PRSA Foundation featuring top multicultural communications executives, one panelist used the term, “emerging majority” to describe the growing minority population in the U.S. This means brands can no longer afford to focus on multiculturals periodically, but must shift their entire marketing/communications focus to include these groups. It’s time for brands to throw out the old multicultural marketing frameworks and rewrite strategies with a diverse perspective.

This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn earlier this year.  

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