It is not every day that a company makes an about face, a public apology, or rescinds work; it is many days of the week, but not every day.
The issue is not unique to content created for the web — see the flair up over Coke and Campbell’s commercials — though in a seamless world a controversy designed for one platform will certainly spread to the others.
In the fall AirBnB pulled their less than a day old ad campaign in San Francisco, after complaints about it being tone deaf and needlessly brash; the company issued an apology quickly and retracted the materials. Surely a millennial juggernaut such as AirBnb would have a marketing department with a map with what is in and out of bounds in this era of instant outrage, and yet this is not their first misstep. Just this summer it had struggled with its voice on Twitter, ultimately saying “We apologize for Wednesday’s SF ads. They displayed poor judgment and do not live up to the values and humanity of our global community” Airbnb also posted.”
In a world that will never be happy, endlessly demanding a duality of creative envelope pushing and restrained sensibility, advertisement has become ever trickier.
The point then is not that every consumer will be happy, nor that every ad is created for every consumer, rather that companies must have advertisements and visions that speak uniquely to segments while not trampling on others.
In a piece by A.O Scott about contemporary comedy, following Louis C.K’s edgy material on Saturday Night Live and predictable reactionary scorn, he says “The art of outrage requires the constant turning of tables and forcing of analogies, the endless iteration of the words”. Advertising, much like comedy, is about connecting with the audience and telling a story; while the blessing of the internet is its permanent open-mic nature, the curse is a fierce and biting audience primed to crash a stock price. He continues “In the blink of an eye, social media lights up not with twinkles of collective liking but with flames of righteous mob fury. We demand fresh material, and then we demand apologies.”
So who then is succeeding at expressing their convictions while stepping on the fewest toes, which company is advertising the best? Nike and Apple continue their run of successful campaigns, both launching new and continuing existing products. While their results are impressive, avoiding miscues to maintain an already dominant image is a different game entirely.
Here are three recent examples companies executing marketing campaigns that sell positive values while refraining from dividing consumers:
1. Under Amour is having success at just this, capturing market share by targeting segments without stepping on toes. This campaign designed by Droga5 started in 2014, a year where their stock price began at $43.50 per share, has been hugely successful and two years later its price has essentially doubled to $81.22.
Watch the Under Amour Misty Copeland advertisement on Youtube
Not every viewer will drive to the mall and buy an Under Armour shirt, but the point of the ad really is not to do that — just as not everyone who watches the Coca-Cola or Campbell’s’ ad is purchase their products, and most people will not go on vacation just to rent on Airbnb. These ads are about connecting with an audience, conveying to that the company understands and shares the values of the consumer.
Watch the successive Under Armour Stephen Curry advertisement on Youtube
The underhanded suggestion is the lifestyle that the target audience lives is one that includes Under Amour, and to anyone watching the ad incidentally, there is nothing inflammatory or controversial to get them riled. Connecting the consumer drives sales, but trying to drive sales rarely helps connect to the consumer.
2. Volkswagen for the foreseeable future will going to be defending its existence likely using a methodology laid out in a This American Life segment. In sum, the show talks with ad agencies who suggest the automaker concern themselves with fewer apologies and more with ways to start anew. (BP used a similar strategy after the Deepwater Horizon’s catastrophe)
Before the company was embroiled in scandal, it had one of the more memorable Super Bowl commercials in recent history, suggesting that owners of their car will share the child-like wonder of kid in a Darth Vader costume. (Given the success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Volkswagen may just want to rerun their ad)
Watch Volkswagen’s 2011 Super Bowl advertisement on Youtube
There is no mention of quality of the product, no discussion of price or technical specs, and it moves quickly past the warm suburban family, instead offering to the audience a car that fulfills the amazement and excitement in a child as it would any owner. Sharing values with a smaller segment of the population — Caucasian, single income families with one child — the ad is equally about presenting a lighthearted sales pitch as it is promoting the brand as one that transcends car manufacturing. The future may seem hazy for Volkswagen — one could say smoggy — but the groundwork has been laid to present the company as one that is in lockstep with the consumer that it desires.
3. Lastly is an a commercial from internet retailer — and proprietor of physical bookstores — Amazon, offering to solve any capitalistic desire with a click of a button and one-day shipping. Leaning heavily on cuteness, catchy music, and viewer’s insatiable demand, Amazon though still shares the same tenets as the other advertisements.
Watch Amazon’s advertisement on Youtube
Being able to connect with the consumer at a base level, acknowledging it as a company understands the everyday problems of people, is again about offering its service as a panacea and one piece in the larger lifestyle. Everyone needs something, Amazon is sympathetic to that, and as such is going out of its way to support people with a similar conundrum.
Jon Ronson wrote So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in 2015 about open nature by which society provides and enacts feedback, a very focused version of groups deriding companies. The three above ads did not elicit negative responses, but for everyone else, replace a person getting shamed with a company,and the quote speaks just as loudly:
“A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.”
The commonality among these advertisements though is that they connect with the viewer, offer an idea that the company can stand behind, while not alienating the audience. The fine line to walk as many companies this year will attest to — See Starbucks as example — is the dichotomy of promoting ideals and promoting sales.
Surely there is a group upset that Amazon is promoting the idea of keeping horses indoors as pets, undoubtedly people are displeased that Under Amour is commercializing playing and sports, and likely even fans of the evil Darth Vader will complain that the corrupt automaker is making their villain look bad; there is never going to be an advertisement that appeals to everyone. It is not to say that the aforementioned advertisements that attracted contempt did so on purpose, rather that marketing of companies without negative public reaction did so by focusing on the commonalities amongst us all.
Here’s to hoping that 2016 offers more inclusion and less outrage.