In a hyper-sensitive culture, marketing can be one tough dollar. Misogyny, racism, ethnocentrism, bigotry, discrimination -- all are part of the new, vast minefield marketers must maneuver to avoid the social explosions that can do significant damage to their clients or their brands.
Victims in search of injustice
Take, for example, a recent Gap Kids ad, pulled from circulation due to its perceived racial insensitivity. The idea behind the campaign -- that girls can do anything -- was lost in an image of a white girl using an African American girl for an armrest. Turns out, the subjects of the controversy were actually sisters. True, the ad wasn't exactly the overt transgression many assumed at first glance. But, given the culture of victimhood within which we find ourselves, the campaign's marketers should have known better.
Yes, even an innocent message of empowerment can run afoul of the social police when indignities lurk around every corner. Race, gender identity, income inequality, gay rights, women’s rights: The areas for potential transgressions are wide and varied.
A confederacy of microaggressors
The difficulty for marketers is that they often have no choice but to make wide, sweeping generalizations due to the limited time available to them. YouTube ads last, at most, 25 seconds. TV ads run for as little as 30. The entire lifespan of a tweet lasts just 18 minutes! These small windows of time sometimes require the use of generalizations to create certain assumptions. Assumptions, however, lead to stereotyping, and stereotyping leads to microaggressions.
Microaggressions are (mostly) unintentional phrases, comments or actions that cause others to feel victimized, offended or discriminated against, and they permeate all facets of American society. A man who sees a woman in scrubs at a hospital might say, “Excuse me, nurse" . . . only to discover (to his embarrassment) that she is actually a doctor. While he may not consciously believe all women in scrubs are nurses, his subconscious assumption in this instance results in a microaggression that slights the doctor.
The marketing enigma
It’s no longer enough for brands to heed the rules of polite conversation by avoiding sex, religion and politics. In fact, many brands have successfully interwoven these very themes into their marketing campaigns. Successful marketing requires creativity.
So, how can marketers, charged with differentiating and distinguishing their brands from the competition, avoid offending the masses with stereotypes and implied insults? Take these steps.
1. Be a master/mistress of tone.
Understanding your brand is the first step to avoiding a colossal faux pas. Learning your company’s values, finding its personality and articulating its story are all part of developing a sound marketing strategy, but these steps also provide marketers with insights about where the campaign should go, and just as importantly, where it shouldn’t.
2. Be topical, but also authentic.
Kit Kat calls it “moment marketing,” which describes quite succinctly how marketers can seize upon a trending topic and tie it to their brands. The trick is to walk the fine line between “newsjacking” and naturally seizing an opportunity. Done right, topicality can deliver tremendous dividends (just ask Kohl’s). Done poorly, it can do more harm than good.
3. Know your audience and avoid stereotypes.
Using an image of a man, a woman, and a couple of children to convey the message of “family” seems rather harmless to most people, but it also assumes gender-specific roles that might offend certain consumers. The “family unit” is a generally accepted concept, but the idea of a “traditional” family has changed dramatically. Racial diversity, same-sex couples, stepparents -- all have all changed how people identify modern families. Understanding your audience and recognizing when you’re engaging in stereotypes is a critical element to avoiding microaggressions.
4. Transcend 'marketing.'
This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is where all marketing truly begins. The role of the marketer is to engage audiences, relate to people and ultimately pitch a product or service. The latter cannot proceed without the former. Over the last several years, many brands have tried to “get in” on the cultural changes gripping the country. Some have succeeded, while others have failed.
The quagmire of diversity
The downside of trying to appeal a diverse culture is that your potential to offend any particular demographic is magnified exponentially. Diversity itself is not only wonderful, but necessary for any society to evolve. At the same time, the hyper-sensitivity it engenders means marketers must be very careful. Celebrating our differences can easily be mistaken for discrimination, bias or racism. We all have to exercise caution.