Last week, Dove posted an ad showing a black woman taking off her shirt to reveal a white woman underneath, and people rightfully went wild. The backlash prompted the removal of the ad, a subsequent apology for racial insensitivity, and an incalculable amount of reputational damage for a brand built on “real beauty”.
I have a distinct perspective on the art of apology, which I’ve expressed here, here and here. Theirs misses the mark. But never mind that. I want to talk about how this could happen in the first place.
Modern consumers see an estimated 10,000 messages a day. There is intense pressure on modern marketers to produce content that breaks through all that that noise. They must push bounds in order to be effective. As a result, creative increasingly pursues concepts that are edgy, eye catching, or aim for cultural relevancy beyond that typically achieved in their product category. At the same time, budgets and timelines are tight. Many brands are turning to in-house agencies to produce some of this creative.
maslansky + partner’s philosophy on this (and all things) is simple: it’s not what you say that matters, it’s what an audience hears. The way people interpret advertising has less to do with what appears on the screen or page and more to do with the personal emotions, pre-existing perceptions and beliefs they bring to the table.
Your company and everyone who works for it has one set of pre-existing perceptions and beliefs. Your audience has another. Companies can easily become echo chambers of their own ideas and self-perceptions. Without the proper dosing of outside perspective, bad ideas can easily go unquestioned.
You might be saying, “no duh”. But the fact is, Dove isn’t alone. Companies keep getting this wrong. It happened to McDonald’s. It happened in strikingly similar fashion to Nivea. It’s happened to Dove once before for heaven sakes!
Others have gotten it right: the Ad Council, Nike, and Tide. But a single image or word could have sent many a perfectly poignant ad off course, especially in the highly politicized environment corporations are operating in.
Dove’s ad is special in that it’s particularly obvious. Anyone—inside or outside the organization—should have been smacked in the face by its offensiveness. But for other brands seeking to create content that pushes creative bounds, strikes an emotional chord or hits on the cultural zeitgeist, how do you do so without—to quote Dove’s spokesperson—“missing the mark”?
The speed of our world is not an excuse. It’s not hard to find the right line to walk. Companies need a system in place to get an outside view. They also need to be open to hearing that the creative team’s cool idea is a crisis waiting to happen. Today, technology enables fast testing that determines conclusively if an ad has hit any hot buttons, with who, and how to fix it. This process table stakes for any brand that wishes to create content that has edge, but doesn’t fall off it.
Michael Maslansky is CEO of maslansky + partners. Michael employs research and data-driven approaches like Rapid Response content testing for most of the marketing teams heworks with on anything that could be even remotely controversial. His firm advises Fortune 500 corporations, industry associations, major litigation practices and non-profit organizations on language strategy and messaging issues.