Whether you’re running a business, parenting your child, buying groceries, or just riding the subway, there’s a central code of ethics that most likely governs your interactions. (Unless you’re among the 1% of the population who was born without a conscience – in which case, get off my blog, psychopath.)
I know this because the human race has codified, enumerated, and legislated moral attitudes since the dawn of time. Whether it’s the system of virtue ethics created by Aristotle, the humanist theory of right and wrong, the Jewish books of law, or Jesus’ Golden Rule, we’ve been talking about how to be a good person pretty much as long as we’ve been able to form thoughts.
Sure, there are lots of different theories of how to be a good person. And yeah, each one has its own individual quirks and unique factors. But in a lot of ways, these various ethical theories all boil down to one common sentiment, one common imperative that everyone everywhere can get behind:
Don’t be an ass.
And that applies just as much in business & marketing as it does in people’s private lives.
People don’t like doing business with jerks. (Duh.) And people really don’t like having their personal flaws pointed out in ads or their sensibilities offended for no reason.
Now, there are some important caveats that need to be made. Insulting ideas is totally fair game – ideas require criticism, and they don’t inherently deserve respect because not all ideas hold value.
But when it comes to dealing with other people, that’s where you need to be careful. Especially when you’re trying to convince people to adopt your point of view or become a patron of your business.
What lots of companies forget is this: People don’t owe you their attention.
If you’re trying to market to me, I’m under no obligation to listen to anything you have to say. So if I do grant you my precious time and valuable attention, I’m going to expect that you say something worth hearing. And I’m not going to tolerate having my core beliefs and personal values attacked.
I know what you’re thinking: “But being offensive makes it so easy to get noticed!”
Sure, offensive ads definitely GET attention. But it’s not the right kind of attention. It’s not the kind of attention that translates into a purchase. On the contrary – if you insult me, I’m not going to want to have anything to do with you, because you’re an ass.
Check out this ad for a postage meter, published in 1953. Now, for 1953, the ad is fairly tame and inoffensive. But if this were published today, the very best thing we’d be able to say about it is that it’s in bad taste. The ad obviously relies on stereotypes of women as completely incapable of operating even the simplest machines. (Except for a washing machine or a clothing iron, of course. Seriously, Miss Morissey. You might as well just go to the kitchen and make me a sandwich. I don’t care that you don’t know how to operate the new postage meter – I’m not going to teach you because you’ll take forever to learn it anyway. I don’t want to hear your objections – men are talking. Shut up and go have another child. #sarcasm)
Some might even argue that the ad encourages violence against women. But again, it was 1953, it was a different time, and saying these kinds of things in an ad was acceptable back then. And back in the 50s, this ad probably worked wonders.
But it’s 2016 now. This crap doesn’t fly anymore.
And yet, there are dozens of companies that still haven’t figured this out.
Need a list of what NOT to do in your marketing? Just check out this (absolutely 100% NSFW) list of 10 ads that were so offensive, the companies behind them had to issue public apologies. (Content warning: Depictions of rape, suicide, nudity, terrorism, and pedophilia.)
In this selection alone, we’ve got ads that incorporate fat-shaming, slut-shaming, pedophilia, rape-victim-blaming, rape glorification, depictions of suicide and self-harm, and all sorts of other unsavoury crap that should make any decent human being say, “What the hell?”
And that’s to say nothing of lots more offensive ads by companies like Ashley Madison, Target, Ferrero Rocher, and dozens of other brands. There was even one instance where the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board released an ad that not only blamed rape victims for their own sexual assaults, but also re-traumatized rape survivors with rape-related images.
See, here’s the thing that these companies haven’t figured out: Offensive ads turn people off. (Again, duh.)
One 2010 Adweek survey found that a full 30% of Americans will deliberately choose not to buy something if the ad for that product was offensive. And we shouldn’t be surprised. This is one of those studies that makes you question what we spend research money on and why. It’s like commissioning a study to figure out what colour the sky is, when any Kindergarten student can just go outside, look up, and tell you that it’s blue.
Speaking of Kindergarten students, I’m astounded at how often “Everything I need to know about life I learned in Kindergarten” is applicable in business. This ingenious book by Robert Fulghum could basically be your complete, foolproof guide to figuring out whether airing a particular ad is a good idea.
Among Fulghum’s rules are:
• Play fair
• Don’t hit people
• Clean up your own mess
• Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody
If you can follow those rules in your advertising, you shouldn’t offend anyone.
So not offending people is pretty straightforward if you’re a decent human being with a working brain. But what about those of us who are culturally impaired and need a bit of extra help?
I get it. Social expectations change over time and between places, and something that was perfectly fine to say 10 years ago in a different country might be taboo here, today. (Example: “That’s retarded!”) There are so many ways that people might be offended by something, and it’s hard to predict when they’re going to go haywire – especially if you’re marketing to multiple different cultures or if you’re trying to bridge a generational gap. How can you possibly avoid offending everyone?
Well, here are a few quick tips and strategies you can use to make your marketing as inoffensive as possible.
Don’t reinforce stereotypes.
Stereotypes are offensive – at least, they are to the people they’re about. One study by researchers at the University of Paris found that ads that use stereotypes have no effect on most populations – but they offend stereotyped audiences.
In other words, there’s no upside to using stereotypes in your marketing. At best, using stereotypes will get you a response of cold indifference. At worst, you’ll be facing angry hordes of people armed with torches and pitchforks. Not. Worth. It.
Not sure whether something is a stereotype? Check it out. Use focus groups. If your ad features German women, ask a small group of German women if they find the ad offensive. The key here is to be receptive and, if it turns out your ad is offensive, apologize and thank the group for their input. Then try to learn why the ad is offensive and avoid making the same mistake.
Don’t aim for funny unless you 100% KNOW you can pull it off.
Humour can be a powerful tool in advertising – if you know what you’re doing. But the problem that a lot of businesses encounter is when they shoot for funny…and miss. It’s tragic. It’s embarrassing. At best, it makes people feel sorry for you. And at worst, it offends people.
Want an example where a company pulled out all the stops and decided to offend EVERYONE EVERYWHERE, because what they had to say was (in their opinion) so funny they just had to say it?
Check out this ad for Kurl-on mattresses, using a cartoon version of Malala Yousafzai being shot in the head to advertise that its mattresses help you “bounce back from anything”.
(For those not in the know, Yousafzai – then 14 years old – was a shooting victim in 2012 when the Taliban tried to assassinate her for promoting female education. Talk about a messed up world. Seriously, who the hell shoots a 14-year-old girl for trying to make education more accessible? And who the hell decides that a shooting is good material for an ad?)
And believe it or not, this terrible ad came from the minds at the Indian branch of Ogilvy & Mather. Yousafzai is from Pakistan, which is right next to India. So not only should Ogilvy & Mather have had the cultural sensitivity to know that this wasn’t an appropriate ad, but they also apparently totally forgot to leverage their firm’s considerable in-house talent in figuring out whether this ad is actually in good taste. Ogilvy & Mather has been doing international advertising for over 50 years. They’re one of the most recognizable names in the advertising industry. And the fact that they made this kind of bone-headed mistake is absurd.
In other words, not even the best and brightest can get away with offending people in their marketing. And oftentimes, the way this happens is that people try to go for humour – and fail horrendously.
But sometimes, if you’re smart and genuinely funny, you can actually pull off a funny ad – and hit a homerun with it.
Example: The IKEA bookbook. This hilarious ad has been seen 18 million times. Why? Because it’s genuinely funny. From the Apple-esque optimism and showmanship to the cheery music to the “eternal battery life” and “expanding interface”, this ad creates humour by making a strange comparison that most people wouldn’t expect. That’s why it’s funny – because it shatters people’s expectations. It creates incongruity. My Psychology of Humour professor would say it activates two contradictory schemas, and because these two schemas don’t fit, we interpret the conflict as humour.
This is what happens when you understand the psychology of humour – you can create jokes that help to sell your brand instead of just offending people.
Using new slang? Check it out first.
Using slang in your advertising can be a great way to connect with particular demographics and give your brand an edge. But before you put slang in your ads, you need to make absolutely sure you know what it means to your target demographic.
There are dozens of examples of companies not checking out their slang first, and later finding out that it doesn’t translate well into other languages/ turns off their target demographic because it appeals to a different age group/ doesn’t mean what they think it means.
For example, when Renault released the Renault 14 in 1976, the company tried to market it to French consumers as being shaped like a pear. (For what reason I cannot say. Maybe pears are really good shapes for car safety reasons?)
Anywho, pretty quickly, French consumers decided they hated the car. Why? Because in French, “La Poire” is slang for “gullible” – and so it was implied that buying a Renault 14 was only for gullible people. In other words, Renault’s use of slang didn’t work. They weren’t even marketing to an international audience – they were marketing to their home market in France. But there are also challenges with marketing to international audience. Which is why…
If you’re marketing in multiple languages, you should have localization experts review your campaigns.
Not everything translates well into foreign languages, and a poor translation of your message may inadvertently end up offending your audience.
For example, when the California Milk Advisory Board decided it wanted to broaden its immensely successful “Got Milk?” campaign to target audiences in Mexico, it forgot to look into how to properly convey their message to a Mexican audience. So what ended up happening? The Mexico campaign’s tagline ended up translating as “Are you lactating?” – which, in Mexico, is seen as terribly offensive because it implies that women who have difficulties breastfeeding are bad mothers.
Here’s another prime example: When Puffs (the facial tissue company) wanted to branch out into the German market, the brand faced major challenges with localization because in German, the word “Puff” is slang for “brothel.” As if that’s not enough, the company encountered further problems when entering the British market. In England, the term “puff” refers to a gay or effeminate man, and is generally considered an offensive term.
But that’s nothing compared to when Pepsi tried to get a piece of the gigantic Chinese market. Pepsi’s slogan, “we bring you back to life,” had to be changed prior to introduction to China – because the Chinese translation of that phrase actually means, “We bring your ancestors back from the grave.”
This is important because in Chinese folk religion, one’s departed ancestors are considered holy figures worthy of praise and respect, so a flippant statement about bringing ancestors back to life would not go over well with a Chinese audience.
Luckily, Pepsi realized their error before their marketing campaign went live, and were able to avert what would’ve been a PR nightmare. That’s why, if you’re marketing to an international audience, you need to consult a localization expert before you launch your campaign.
Not offending people with your marketing is easy in some cases, and hard in others. But it’s always a must if you want to succeed. People won’t tolerate being offended. So don’t offend them.
Have you ever accidentally offended your audience? How did you recover? What are you doing to avoid offending audiences in the future?