Maybe People Need to Lighten Up? Experts Talk About Offensive Advertising, and How Companies Can Avoid It

February 4, 2013  |  

Volkswagen was the latest company to step into a pile of controversy over an ad that some considered racist. In the ad, which ran during last night’s Super Bowl though some suspected it wouldn’t, a white man walks around his office speaking in a Jamaican accent, encouraging people to “get happy,” as the ad campaign’s motto says.

Many people, including many Jamaicans and other minorities, didn’t actually find the ad offensive.

“Personally, I was not offended. As half Guyanese, I thought it was funny,” Monique Nelson, CEO and chairman UniWorld Group, a multicultural marketing agency told us in an email. “Furthermore, after doing a little research, I found out that Volkswagen employed a Jamaican linguist on the set to verify the accent. In my opinion, that showed respect for the culture and their audience.” As the Today  show also pointed out, a Volkswagen spokesperson said the company consulted with a focus group comprised of Jamaicans to make sure it wouldn’t cause offense.

Respect for the audience — the whole audience — is the first necessity for any marketing campaign. But there has to be more as well.

“Whenever companies are working with a concept that is foreign to their core competency, my recommendation is to work with a subject or cultural expert,” Nelson continues. “More research and more diversity on the team may not alleviate all of the issues, but some of them.”

That issue of diversity in the advertising industry is one that continues to impact the finished marketing product, particularly at a time when the consumer is increasingly diverse. Before the Volkswagen issue even reared its head, Ad Age published an op-ed by Lincoln Stephens, the founder and executive director of the Marcus Graham Project. In the article, Stephens gives tips for both aspiring marketers and the marketing industry to increase diversity in the industry. He says it’s something that both sides should work on together, with future staffers being persistent and constantly improving their skills while the execs look beyond family, friends, and assorted acquaintances for new talent.

Claudine Moore, founder of C Moore Media, an international public relations firm, agrees that there needs to be more diversity in the industry. “I have been in the business in America for the last 13 years, and the persistent lack of diversity continues to astound me, especially at senior levels. America is not changING, it has changED, and the industry needs to change too…and quickly,” she told us via email.

At the same time, Moore, a British woman of Jamaican descent who didn’t find the Volkswagen ad offensive, says we ought to be careful about labeling everything “offensive” or “racist.”

“I thought it was light-hearted and humorous, plus the actors accent was really very good,” she wrote. “I think we have to be very careful about what we deem offensive. If everything that pokes a bit of fun is taken as seriously offensive, then humor and creativity will be zapped out of the industry.”

True enough. Many of the ads that ran last night relied heavily on humor, a clever turn of phrase, or an old-fashioned sight gag. But, as Tony Balasandiran, an account supervisor at Flowers Communications Group tells us, it’s most important to understand where an attempt at humor is going to upset an audience you’re trying to reach with your message.

“The key to pushing the envelope with your marketing, without crossing the line, is actually knowing your target audience,” he wrote to us. “Effective marketing relies on the message – verbal or visual – resonating with your intended audience. Knowing means understanding – as in, understanding the cultural nuances of your audience. Without this understanding, brands will continue to find themselves on, hovering over, and inevitably crossing, the line.”

Of course, some companies, like Go Daddy, purposely court controversy as a way to stand out. “Understanding that the media landscape is cluttered and very hard to break through, marketers are taking chances with advertising that many may see as controversial, but that marketers may simply see as disruptive,” UniWorld Group’s Nelson added.

But there is a point where you can push the levels of taste, propriety, or straight up decency so far that you can alienate people. Based on the feedback we’ve been hearing about that lip-smacking Go Daddy ad, they could have done just that last night.


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