Should we feel sorry for brands that make big mistakes and suffer public backlash? My answer is no.
South African social media seems to be a constant stream of problematic content, and Women’s Month is basically like Bad Brand Christmas – which makes 1 September Sorry Not Sorry New Year. Last year we saw Marie Claire putting boys in heels, which is defs the same as enduring a lifetime of gender-based violence and prejudice – especially if they’re those plastic Mr Price pumps. And let’s not forget the BIC disaster, when we learned pens could have offensive and patronising opinions after all.
If you kicked puppies in your past life and now your destiny is to work in advertising, you’ve probably come across this common sentiment:
“Shaaame, man. The brand managers must be having the worst day! PR must be crying into their banting salads and setting their Instagrams to private! Why do people have to be SO MEAN about brands. It’s just a tweet / Facebook post / video, it doesn’t actually matter. It’s not fair – imagine if that happened to you!”
Never mind the fact that these very sympathetic people are usually the ones who tear brands apart in their personal capacity when they’re disappointed with service. There are some – okay, three – fundamental flaws in this appeal for sympathy.
Aw yeah. I’ve got a list.
#1 Brands are publishers, and they have a responsibility
Brands are publishers of cultural capital. (Bear with me guys, I went to Wits and if I don’t say cultural capital or in a post-colonial context at least once a month, my degree spontaneously combusts.) As a publisher – whether you’re a national newspaper, a sitcom producer, or a lowly blogger like myself – you have a responsibility to your audience. You’re creating something and putting it out into the world. The very least you could do is ensure it’s not harmful.
“But just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you have to ATTACK them, Das!”
Fair enough, disembodied voice! But there’s a difference between disagreeing with an opinion and calling out harmful behaviour.
Let’s say I make milkshakes because my business plan heavily relies on bringing all the boys to the yard. I launch a campaign to increase sales, with the tagline “Milkshakes are delicious!”
Many people, from alkaline diet gurus to the lactose intolerant, will disagree with that tagline and hate on my product. They may tweet that milkshakes are disgusting. But they’re not my target audience so I’m not stressed. You can’t please everyone, right?
Now let’s say my first campaign went well, and I want to start on a festive promo. My new tagline is “Don’t wait for Santa, milkshakes cure cancer!”
Bit of a different situation, right?
I mean, a festive promo in August? That shit’s not okay.
Obviously my messaging has gone from not to everyone’s taste to problematic as fuck. It is irresponsible for me to say that milkshakes cure cancer because I have an audience, and if that audience believes my statement, it will cause harm. People will veto chemo for a banoffee swirl milkshake. They may not die, but I’ve made the world a bit worse, haven’t I?
It’s the same when brands use their platforms to spread messaging that is misogynistic, racist, body shaming, or generally shitty.
We consume cultural capital every day, and it shapes our view of the world. When Mr Sexist sees a group of women in, say, a sponsored video, agreeing that women are inferior to men, it’s a little boost to him. Mr Sexist doesn’t even feel bad when he chooses to underpay his female employees, because his views are justified by the cultural capital around him. The messaging brands put out in the world have real world consequences.
#2 The brand is not a single person
Brands are made up of several decision makers, producers, and stakeholders. If you’re not in the industry, it’s hard to imagine people sitting in a boardroom discussing which stock photo best says “wholesome fun and great value in a South African context”, but it happens.
Every single day, people’s entire salaries are earned deciding what a brand should and shouldn’t put out into the world. If bad stuff went out, there is an entire line of people who didn’t do their jobs well enough. Shouldn’t that have consequences, like in any other job?
While individuals make mistakes spontaneously, and post to social media impulsively, the same can’t be said for brands. There is always an approval process, which means there are always opportunities to flag issues like “Hey, we’re saying milkshakes cure cancer. Think some people might have a problem with that?”
Focusing on one person’s suffering – whether it’s the Brand Manager or the PR rep – derails the real issue, which is the brand’s mistake. Of course these people are having a shitty day. At their jobs. For which they get paid. Everybody has bad days at their job. To be honest, the only people you should pray for are the Community Managers – they usually don’t have a say in what content goes out, and they’re at the frontlines of the backlash.
If you know a community manager, praise them for their thick skin, and make sure they have access to post-traumatic counselling after every work day.
#3: We’re Teaching The Beast
Did you notice that this year, Women’s Month wasn’t the social media warzone it was in 2015? That’s because the beast that is the advertising industry is slowly learning. It means that when terrible ideas were pitched this July, people who would’ve kept quiet last year tentatively raised their hands and said, “This may get a negative social media reaction because we’re focusing on men in a Women’s Month campaign. Remember Marie Claire’s In Her Shoes? It’s like that.”
Calling out problematic brands has a purpose. When brands can anticipate being called out, they work harder at making content that isn’t offensive or harmful. This makes the young, woke part of the workforce more valuable, because they can spot issues where the old guard are missing them.
I hope those woke industry kids feel more heard now than they did a few years ago, before there was a risk of content being marked by Twitter and handed back to the brand with a big red F on it.
As for my cancer-curing milkshake campaign, I am very sorry to have caused offence as I merely meant to spread deliciousness. Everyone knows it was just a joke, right? Please stop tweeting me, the iguana I hired to run my social media is threatening to quit and go back to Rhodes to finish her journalism degree.