ThinkOTB Agency

Manufactured controversy

April 15, 2019

As a creative marketing agency, consider every eventuality of a campaign that we put our name to. The negative connotations of words, the way certain images could be misconstrued, and so on. So, why is it that on what seems like a weekly basis, are we inundated with stories of brands that clumsily stumble into controversy?

Recent brand controversy

A little over a year ago, retail giant H&M was forced to issue an apology for one of their promotional photographs. It showed a black child wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle” surfaced. This resulted in a wave of backlash from people dismayed and shocked at H&M’s lack of foresight. Some customers even called for a boycott and a whole host of celebrities severed ties with the company.

In February of this year, Gucci were forced to withdraw a woollen jumper from their collection that ‘resembled blackface’. The all black jumper covered the bottom half of the model’s face with a red cut-out positioned over the lips. The design was widely criticised. People were quick to note a comparison between the jumper and racial stereotypes perpetuated by blackface. After the item was removed from the collection, the brand said it would turn the incident “into a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team”. To add insult to injury, this campaign was released at the height of Black History Month. Nice way to pay homage, guys.

And just last week, both Waitrose and Burger King found themselves in hot water for similar incidents. To mark Easter, Waitrose released a trio of chocolate ducklings made from white, milk and dark chocolate. The latter was labelled as ‘ugly’ while the other two varieties took on affectionate names, ‘fluffy’ and ‘crispy’. Waitrose promptly apologised and renamed the products in response to criticism. Burger King came under fire when they released an ad that was charged with being culturally insensitive’. They depicted customers struggling to eat their new Vietnamese inspired burger with a pair of chopsticks…

All campaigns must be approved by design, press and sales teams. It’s staggering that brands continue turn a blind eye to something so blatantly offensive. There are only two reasons to explain why a brand would publish such racially insensitive or outright racist material: publicity stunts or cultural ignorance. Neither of which excuse the damage or offence caused by brand controversy.

A shameless publicity stunt

Although this explanation involves a high degree of complicity from a brand perspective, it’s an explanation that’s hard to ignore. In an ever-critical world where even the slightest racially motivated act won’t go unnoticed or unpunished, is it really possible that brands aren’t aware of the offence they would be causing? How does the old saying go, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity?” It’s incredibly difficult not to buy into this explanation. When brands continually push harmful racial tropes with little regard for public reaction, it becomes increasingly difficult for consumers to give them the benefit of the doubt.


Cultural Ignorance

This explanation gives brands a chance to squirm out of direct blame. Perhaps it is possible that through every stage of briefing, design and roll-out, these brands simply weren’t aware of the offence they would be causing? Perhaps they weren’t aware of the tropes their campaigns would be perpetuating? This could perhaps be true. However, if this is the case, it has only been enabled by their reluctance to hire a truly diverse workforce. Do these brands not have more people of colour in higher positions within their organisation? If they did, the problematic nature of these campaigns would have been made immediately clear. The concept would have been shelved and never shown to audiences.

It would be easy to dismiss these incidents as ‘PC gone mad’ or ‘bringing race into everything’ but to do that would be to ignore the offensive impact of these campaigns. When you are a large brand in any sector, you have a social responsibility not to peddle this sort of content. Whether you operate in the higher echelons of the fashion world or in the affordable fast food market, claiming ignorance to these issues is no longer a valid option.

How would you explain continual brand controversy? Is it a symptom of cultural ignorance or is it more sinister than that? Tweet us @otbtweeter with your thoughts and what you would do to ensure this wouldn’t happen in your own organisation.


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