No offense. Much taken.

offensive marketing campaigns

When it comes to marketing mistakes, internet justice is swift. The court of public opinion, comprised of hundreds of millions of jurors, is prepared at a moment’s notice to condemn, mock and shame any company that makes a catastrophic error in judgment. Even large corporations with sophisticated marketing programs and experienced professionals at the helm can wildly miss the mark, unleashing an ad campaign or marketing effort that is tone deaf or offensive.

Want an example? Just this week, the retailer H&M was widely criticized for an ad in which a black child wore a hoodie with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” Marketing disasters like this seem to happen every other week, and were epic and abundant in 2017, even in a world now living in peace and harmony after that one supermodel passed out Pepsis at that one demonstration.

‘I didn’t think about that!’

How does this happen? There are two possible explanations. The less likely possibility is that someone in H&M’s marketing shop was trying to be deliberately offensive and racially insensitive. The more likely scenario is that once the uproar began, and the problem was pointed out, those behind the ad were legitimately shocked, crying out something along the lines of, “Oh, my God, I didn’t think about that!” as they updated their resumes.

“Not even thinking about that” can be a fatal flaw in marketing and social media campaigns. While we may be aware of the demographics of our target market and have an abundance of market research at our fingertips, we are still vulnerable to crafting content and marketing from inside our own personal or professional echo chambers.

This limited prism, based on our own background and experiences, can make it difficult to see problems that appear painfully obvious once folks who have different backgrounds and experiences make themselves heard. And once we have convinced ourselves of the brilliance of an idea, the ability to see that idea any other way is even more compromised.

Furthermore, efforts to be “edgy” or “provocative” or the pressure to create something that will go viral or “get people talking” can lead to envelope pushing which, while innocuous in intent, may be offensive in execution.

These kinds of marketing fails don’t just involve issues of race, sex, religion and politics. They can just as easily be matters of bad taste, like a Filet-O-Fish sandwich. One of the consensus marketing disasters of 2017 was an emotionally exploitative McDonald’s ad in which a child learns that his late father liked Filet-O-Fish just like he does! Nothing says profound grief and a fatherless childhood like tartar sauce. The world was not lovin’ it.

You can’t please everyone, but you don’t have to

Of course, you can never eliminate the possibility that someone, somewhere may take offense at your content or marketing, nor should you try. I am reminded of an email I once sent to a fellow attorney in downstate Illinois, asking if he would like to meet for lunch since I would soon be in his “neck of the woods.”

My superior at the time, copied on the email, expressed her sincere concern that the phrase was offensive, implying that the attorney lived in some backward nowheresville (which was also heavily forested, apparently). Of course, I scoffed at the idea that “neck of the woods” was pejorative in any way, since I say the same thing about Chicago neighborhoods a mile away from mine. I stand by that assessment, even though I now know that at least one person feels differently.

But headline-making marketing mistakes aren’t about outliers or hypersensitivity. They aren’t about political correctness, snowflakes, trigger warnings, safe spaces and all the other ways we talk about offending people’s sensibilities in the public square.

They are simply about the failure to see things from perspectives other than your own. That is why diversity is so important. That is why it is critical to have multiple sets of eyes look at proposed marketing ideas, whether those are the eyes of colleagues, friends or focus groups. Once you gather those perspectives, you can make an informed evaluation about the risks and rewards of your marketing concept.

What steps do you take in your neck of the woods to avoid marketing fails? Let us know in the comments below.

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