During the holiday season of 2013, 30-year-old Justine Sacco posted a series of inane tweets on as she navigated through JFK International Airport, and then through Heathrow airport, on her way to visit family in South Africa:
Weird German dude: You’re in First Class… Get some deodorant.” Inner monologue as I inhale BO.
Chilly—cucumber sandwiches—bad teeth. Back in London!
And then another tweet, right before her 11-hour flight to Cape Town took off:
She turned off her phone and prepared for takeoff.
This last tweet probably wouldn’t have caused much of a stir. After all, although Sacco was the senior director of corporate communications at the media company IAC, she had only 170 Twitter followers. But an anonymous source tipped off another Twitter user with 15,000 followers, who retweeted it. By the time Sacco’s plane touched down in Cape Town, it had gone viral. People around the globe were calling her a racist, demanding that IAC fire her, and even showing up at the airport in South Africa to take a picture of her as she discovered the firestorm that her tweet had sparked.
In the end, Sacco was fired from her job. Family members told her that she had shamed the family’s name. She fled the country in humiliation and signed up for volunteer work in Ethiopia.
All that because of one thoughtless text.
Many offensive statements—in tweets, posts, ads, or any other media—are unintentional. For example, in Justine Sacco’s case, it’s very unlikely that she believed that white people could not get AIDS. She grew up in South Africa, part of an extended family that had long been active in the African National Congress—Nelson Mandela’s party. She and her family had fought for years for racial equality. It is more likely that, rather than a racist remark, it was a subtle jab at how people like to assume that they will always be immune to “other people’s problems.”
What does this have to do with your company’s marketing? More than you think.
At its basic level, you want to make sure that your content is not racist, sexist, or derogatory towards any demographic. Take, for example, this awful Intel ad from 2007:
The ad was intended to promote the Intel Core 2 Duo Processor, which would “multiply computing performance and maximize the power of your employees.” Unfortunately, it consisted of six black men in poses that made it look like they were bowing to the single upright white man. If there had been even one white man in a runner’s starting pose, the ad would not have appeared racist, but as is, the connotation was appalling. What on earth were they thinking?
Beyond the Isms
But marketing blunders aren’t always quite as obvious. All too often, businesses make the mistake of putting out marketing materials without thinking long and hard about how various groups will interpret it. This can lead to major PR fiascos that take a lot of time and effort to clean up.
For example, in January 2020, Aldi’s spearheaded a marketing campaign that they coined “The Poorest Day Challenge.” They challenged a social media influencer to buy a week’s worth of groceries for her family of four for under £25 ($33). This was meant to showcase Aldi’s many affordable ingredients that would be helpful for families on a tight budget. While the challenge seems helpful on its surface, people living on budgets that tight took offense at the title (#PoorestDayChallenge). They also resented the portrayal of this as a “fun challenge,” when it is a harsh daily reality for many.
In a very different vein, Hyundai put out a commercial that depicted a man attempting to kill himself via carbon monoxide poisoning from his car. The ad showed that the suicide attempt failed because the vehicle’s emissions were so clean. The tasteless commercial angered many, who felt that a product promotion was the wrong place for a depiction of suicide. Those in public health had an additional reason to criticize the ad, pointing out that media depiction of suicide can increase the rate of suicide attempts in a population.
Putting People Down
While humor is a great tool in your marketing arsenal, beware of putting people down in the name of comedy. Back in the 1960s, Xerox found this out the hard way. They put out a television commercial featuring a monkey making a copy of a document for a businessman to show “how easy it is” to do such a simple job. For obvious reasons, secretaries did not find this funny.
More recently, in 2012 Huggies put out an ad depicting fathers as morons who don’t know how to parent their own kids. It portrayed a houseful of dads staying home “alone with their babies” for five days while their wives took some “well-deserved time off.” Stay-at-home dads, as well as involved dads in general, were up in arms at the insinuation that they didn’t know how to parent their own kids. Huggies eventually issued an apology and canceled the promised “Huggies Dad Test.”
So before you give a thumbs up to a marketing campaign, take a moment to think about all of the people who will be reading, viewing, or hearing about it. How might they interpret 一 or misinterpret 一 your message? Your brand identity hinges on ensuring that your messaging is clear and well received. Make sure to keep your audience in mind to create the best marketing possible.
This article is part of the Marketing Blunders series. These articles discuss common marketing fiascos and how to avoid them. See all the articles in the series here.