With savvy marketers with their finger on the pulse of popular social trends, it’s no surprise companies are trying to find ways to ride the wave of rising social and political activism to move the hearts and minds of their potential buyers. Unfortunately, those efforts don’t always work out as planned—just ask Pepsi or Dodge Ram.
Without great care and input from more than a few voices, these efforts can go from well-intentioned to misguided overnight, causing people to ask “how can this possibly go through the entire organization and get approved?”
At companies with thousands of employees, with at least dozens, if not hundreds, of brains developing, editing, reviewing, and funding new ad campaigns, we would all like to think at least one person would have said something. Surely, someone must have noticed, cringed, or questioned. Surely! The thing is, even if someone does speak up, it doesn’t matter if their voice isn’t actually heard or respected.
Research has shown our workplaces still penalize or ignore those who speak up against bias and inequities at work. Diversity, in other words, doesn’t matter unless the work culture allows for real inclusivity without penalty or negative repercussions. Companies need to not only create diverse teams, but also create a culture in which underrepresented voices are listened to with the same level of respect, legitimacy, and credibility.
Without a doubt, more ideas are going to surface that aim to capture people’s attention while connecting through what they care about deeply. Our own experiences, identities, and privileges shape the lens through which we see the world. Because of this, all of us will have biases that make it difficult for us to see alternate realities.
With good intentions, marketers will make mistakes that harm their brands. It’s going to cost them. A lot.
There is no comprehensive checklist marketers can use to avoid making another culturally insensitive or appropriative ad. Why? 1) it’d be too long and still not exhaustive and 2) because unfortunately, people’s definition of what is considered “culturally insensitive” differs. Subtlety is the name of the game when it comes to ensuring something is not culturally insensitive, appropriative, or flat-out oppressive.
What you can do is bring on people from different identities who can catch those nuances and biases, provide rigor to your understanding of the subject, and make sure to create a culture where their voices actually hold power.
If you’re looking to veer into campaigns that touch on hot topics, ask these three simple yet critical questions to avoid making a culturally insensitive mistake:
- Could the ad be read as racist? Sexist? Transphobic? Heterosexist? Homophobic? Ableist? Classist? Islamophobic? [insert all the -isms you can think of]
- No? Says who? (If your ad has only been vetted by a homogenous crowd in your own organization, think again)
- Were there any concerns about the ad being culturally insensitive, appropriative, exploitive, or in anyway problematic? (even if there’s only one voice, amplify the comment and ask more people who may think it’s a concern)
More than ever, people are paying attention to how companies are handling social issues. “Diversity and inclusion” has been, and is becoming, an even bigger and more urgent business imperative.
Another important point is to put your money/resources where your mouth is – if your organization is standing in solidarity with a cause or issue, be sure it’s not just with your ads. Be ready to answer: What else are you doing, out of the spotlight, to advance the cause and dialog?
The truth is, there is no silver bullet or easy answer to becoming a socially conscious company that pumps out socially conscious ads. Turns out, you can’t really “fake” being a part of social change with expensive marketing campaigns – especially when you’re not developing them thoughtfully or inclusively.
To hear more of my thoughts on diversity and inclusion, attend my session at the annual Marketing Nation Summit in San Francisco April 29-May 2.
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