The issue of using clichés or stereotypes in advertising.
I have to admit, many posts on this blog relate to - or deal with - sexism or gender stereotypes in advertising. Such ‘focus’ does not originate from my personal perversion but from the fact that we still are routinely confronted with this kind of issues.
You cannot read a magazine, watch TV or look at outdoor ads, without facing images of scantily clad (primarily female) individuals, which are completely unrelated to the promoted product or service. At marketing conferences and workshops “Decency in Advertising” is always a favorite topic and such sessions are usually well-attended. Over the years, I have given several presentations on the topic, hardly without feeling that the audience’s core attention was reserved not so much to my brilliant comments, rather to the examples shown on screen.
I have also wondered many times about the background idea behind the fact that products and services are promoted by relying on this kind of practice: is it because advertisers’ CMOs and the creative people at agencies have insufficient knowledge about the audience - and the social context - which they direct their commercial communication to? Is it a lack of understanding of the characteristics of the product or services they offer? Is it a sort of ‘last resort’ to rely on when no other suitable idea comes up during the conception of a campaign?
Be that as it may, there are some aspects that remain obscure to me: why does a company feel that it will be successful in promoting its products or services (and its brand) by offending/disturbing an entire social category (or – at least – a multitude of individuals falling within such category)? Furthermore, in practical (i.e. financial) terms, did companies relying on such practices ever care about the “return” of their investment, after they succeeded in annoying their potential customers? Did they properly consider in-advance the likely impact of a campaign pitfall resulting in a major offense to a significant group of customers? Did they evaluate the ‘echo’ an unfortunate campaign nowadays may determine by anger spreading around through social media?
Those are the questions which make me wonder about the ongoing ‘popularity’ of this kind of ads, used to promote products, services and brands and why such practice is common not only among small – and possibly ‘unexperienced’– companies but also among big (sometimes even multinational) players.
What is still happening?
In a previous post (dated March 5th, 2018), I have reported about the multiple initiatives undertaken throughout European countries by lawmakers, regulators and self-regulation organizations to prevent – or at least to limit – the practice of sexist advertising.
Some time has passed since the adoption and the coming into force of such measures. However, their effectiveness appears to be questionable, if we consider the quantity of commercial communication still relying on gender clichés and on inappropriate use of the female image.
“A tight pair of buns” (September 2019).
In Tuscany (a region in the central part of Italy) a gym thought to promote its firming and toning programs through big poster ads showing a female butt in a thong under the headline: “We’ll make your ass like this”(there is some wordplay involved as in Italian ‘making someone’s ass’ is equivalent to the English ‘kick your ass’).
No wonder that such campaign drew angry reactions and hefty comments on social media as well as on the press. A local women protection association argued that the poster ad was highly offensive and demeaning to the female image and wondered whether after more than 50 years of women’s abuse in advertising, it wasn’t time to realize that females were more than a body to objectify. Unfortunately, advertisers and their agencies seemed not willing to restrain form using sexist stereotypes in their campaigns. Hence, objecting against such campaigns resulted crucial to determine a cultural shift. The Association felt that the poster ad was totally unacceptable and asked to have it taken down. The gym’s manager argued that: the headline was ‘ironic’ and ‘funny’, the ad focused on a female butt because its female clients were primarily seeking a toning improvement of that part of their anatomy, and that the ad intended to convey the idea of physical improvement without any sexual innuendo or insinuations.
Such defense was not able to bring down the protests.
Using a male porn-star to promote Chips? According to the local SRO, that’s OK.
It is truly surprising what some advertisers do consider as a ‘humorous’ and ‘winking’ reference suitable for their campaigns.
A local snacks producer hired a renown former (male) porno star to appear in its advertising campaigns. One of the ads showed the ‘actor’ in a robe, wearing sunshades and holding a bag of chips in his hands with the headline: “It stays always up, the package” (again, there is a potential double meaning involved, as in Italian street slang the “package” refers to the external part of a male’s genital apparatus).
The ad received some criticism and ironic comments on social media platforms. The advertiser argued to its defense that chips are not an ‘essential’ but a ‘trivial’ product, a product to ‘entertain’. Hence, the company had decided – even though with some hesitation, so they admitted – the (not exactly common) association with a character from the entertainment context, hoping that the campaign would turn out successful (from first reactions it appeared that the campaign was ‘rocking’).
However, the advertiser felt that a slight change in the headline would be appropriate and therefore published on its FB page a similar picture of the porn star stating: “I do really love chips, no double meaning implied”.
The campaign was also referred to the Italian Advertising Self-Regulation Organization with a request for an interim halting injunction.
However, the SRO’s Review Board noticed that the ad had not been put on air during the so-called ‘protected time span’, i.e. between 4:00 and 7:00 pm, when minors are likely to watch TV or close to programs specifically targeted to such audience. Hence, the Board felt that the ad was not infringing on the provisions of the Self-Regulation Code and concluded that, while one could question the advertiser’s choices under a ‘good taste’ perspective, it did not fall into the competence of the SRO to evaluate such (eventually questionable) choices as long the criteria and the rules of behavior of the Code were not violated.
Overseeing the sensitiveness of specific social groups, such as‘natives’, could easily run you into trouble!
As I have mentioned earlier, it happens – quite frequently - that also the campaigns of famous companies, doing business on a multinational level, oversee the potential (negative) implications related to their commercial communication. Backlashes may originate not only from the wording of the promotional message but may arise from the shooting location, from the characters shown or – simply – from the ‘context’ presented.
A few weeks ago, a famous French company, active in the luxury and fashion sector, found itself facing harsh social media reactions in relation to a commercial intended to advertise one of its renowned perfume brands.
The commercial showed a male and a female character walking in a deserted area (the Red Rocks), while a third character performed a war dance, typical for Native Americans. The scenario was accompanied by the following headline “A genuine journey into the depth of the Native American soul, in a sacred, founding and secular territory”. A US association, representing Native American people, took issue with the ad, which was considered as racist and offensive. Specifically, the association argued that the culture of the Native Americans was represented as a wild and underdeveloped one.
The advertiser responded that the ad had been conceived in cooperation with native American consultants to avoid touching on unwelcome clichés. However, the campaign was pulled and the previous posts on social media were cancelled.
This is good example to explain how unexpected negative reactions to a promotional message can arise. In my professional life I have spent over 25 years with performing pre-clearance checks on commercials and ads. Despite such longstanding experience, I doubt that I would have foreseen issues with the above-mentioned campaign.
Maybe, a while back, when the debate and the dispute over the Red Skins logo was at its peak, a consultant could have suggested some caution in relation to the use of a Native American character performing a traditional war dance. This – rather unexpected – backlash however shows the risks involved by a campaign, which in some way addresses (or just touches on) aspects relevant to a specific social group and to the sensitiveness towards certain topics of said group.
“Man shall not live on bread alone ..” (Matthew 4:4)
Advertisers are well advised to adopt extreme caution, when their commercial communication brushes up against religious themes or makes use of religious symbols. Especially today, when a message perceived as ‘offensive’ spreads around in hours (if not minutes) and reaches out to the huge crowds present – at any given time of the day – on social media, the many facets of a potential audience’s religious feelings need to be carefully considered in advance.
Hence, no wonder, that back in June, a poster ad, moved around on pick-ups in the city center of Rome and Milan, caused some uproar and determined the protest of a representative of the Italian Episcopal Conference (who asked for immediate removal).
The poster advertised an escort service, by showing the picture of a young girl with a Subway sandwich in one hand, in the pose of taking a bite. On top of said picture there was the following headline “Man shall not live on bread alone ..” (which is part of a biblical passage, taken from Matthew, 4:4).
The advertiser argued to his defense that the ad intended to make acceptable what had been a taboo subject for too long. It also aimed at increasing safety (through reviews posted on the advertiser’s online platform) for both, users as well as sex workers. The retort to such argument of those objecting to the campaign: the ad – being diffused through outdoor posters – could be viewed also by children, who should not be targeted with promotional messages for an escort service. In addition, the Italian Constitutional Court had stated that no form of prostitution could be held as the result of a ‘free choice’ as it will always result from severe conditioning or from a situation of necessity.
Advertisers cannot just congratulate themselves about what they consider as a brilliant idea for – or a ‘rocking’ presentation of – a campaign. They need to be capable of putting themselves on the receiving end and to figure out how a given target group may perceive the message conveyed or the situation and the topic presented. Any wrong choice could easily confront them with an angry crowd and with negative reactions impacting on a brand’s reputation.