Picture: 123RF/melpomen
Picture: 123RF/melpomen

Have companies gone too far in bowing to consumers’ demands? Has social media distorted marketing so much that common sense and ordinary values have given way to the voice of the mob? Or to a single, strident individual?

Barely a week goes by without a brand apologising for a marketing mistake, real or perceived. Woolworths withdrew a Valentine’s Day advertising campaign this year after critics accused it of gender stereotyping and failing to consider gay and transgender customers.

In the UK, retail chain Waitrose recently removed a dark-chocolate duckling called "Ugly" from its shelves after protesters deemed it racist. Presumably they were unaware of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale in which an ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan.

Also in the UK, London transport authorities have banned an ad showing a bowl of strawberries and cream after complaints from anti-obesity campaigners. Elsewhere, Gucci halted production of a black poloneck with a mouth cut into the neck (so wearers can pull it over their faces in cold weather) after its clear resemblance to "blackface" was pointed out.

Similarly, online UK marketing pictures of a young black boy wearing an H&M hoodie with the slogan "Coolest monkey in the jungle" provoked outrage. The garment wasn’t stocked in SA but that didn’t stop EFF protesters invading local H&M stores.

In some cases, the outrage is justified. But in others, a single complaint can override overwhelming public support for a campaign. There are countless examples, in SA as elsewhere, of regulatory bodies banning popular advertising campaigns because one person took offence.

"The unfortunate truth is that we have become hypersensitive under the auspices of inclusion," says Jonathan Houston, GM at brand consultancy HKLM.

The days when brands could control their marketing messages are long gone. A single online dislike shared among "friends" can create a tidal wave of opprobrium that, within minutes, negates months of careful brand preparation.

How can marketers avoid crossing the line when there is no line — until someone chooses to draw it retrospectively and unilaterally?

Often, there is good reason for the backlash. Occasionally, however, it’s because someone misunderstands the message. And sometimes it’s because someone is offended. That’s the worst scenario, say marketers, because taking offence is a reflection of personal prejudices.

Author Salman Rushdie once wrote: "Nobody has the right to not be offended. If you are offended, it is your problem. Lots of things offend lots of people."

Actor and humorist Stephen Fry observes: "It’s very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that’, as if it gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more ... than a whine."

According to journalist and social commentator Christopher Hitchens: "Those who are determined to be offended will discover a provocation somewhere. We cannot adjust enough to please the fanatics and it is degrading to make the attempt."

That doesn’t mean marketers won’t try. But how can they avoid crossing the line of responsibility when there is no line — until someone chooses to draw it retrospectively and unilaterally? After all, the purpose of branding and advertising is to stand out. That means being different.

But not too different, says Houston. As a general rule, marketers should ask: "Is this something I would say to my gran?"

Nando’s marketers must have very broad-minded grandmothers, given how the fast-food brand has pricked so many bubbles down the years. Its communications get away with things other brands can only dream of.

Houston says: "Certain brands have an irreverence or swagger that the public looks for. Think Nando’s. Think the BMW and Mercedes-Benz advertising battles. The public expects these brands to have a go. They have permission to not only touch the line but go past it."

Sharon Piehl, MD of public relations agency FleishmanHillard SA, says some brands have "earned the right" to push limits by building irreverent brand personalities over extended periods.

This also works at a personal level. Nicola Kleyn, marketing specialist and dean of Pretoria University’s Gordon Institute of Business Science, points to the example of British singer James Blunt. "Some of his social media comments to his followers are outrageous," she says. "But it’s what they expect. He has built a brand presence that allows him to do what he does."

Most brands enjoy no such licence. Brett Morris, CEO of advertising and communications group FCB Africa, says the flood of negative consumer feedback, particularly on social media, has left some uncertain as to how to frame their marketing message.

What it means:

Brands need to balance sensitivity with distinctive messaging. Buckling to undue criticism could lead marketing into a uniform ‘grey area’

"As agencies, we have to help clients understand where the line is," he says. "Brands need a point of view, but my fear is that the wave of overt political correctness is making them afraid to express it. If someone out there wants to be offended, they will always find a way to do so. Social media has given a voice to people on the fringe."

Houston says: "There is a watchdog mentality where people feel they have the right to criticise without reason or seeking to understand. There is too much reaction based on a single frame of reference." He calls it "pseudo-inclusion".

That’s why Kleyn says brands should investigate the source of complaints. "Question the intent. Is this a genuine complaint or someone using you as a grandstand to make a name for themselves?"

Objections don’t even have to be valid. "People are starting to make up their own ‘facts’ to support their case," says Morris. "Whether they’re true or not no longer matters. It’s all about perception. It’s the mob mentality."

Sometimes, of course, companies really do mess up. "If you do, own up to it," says Morris. "But don’t just say sorry. Explain yourself. Acknowledge how people might be offended if the message is taken out of context."

Piehl says companies must react immediately and not wait to see how the situation develops. "The most senior person in the organisation must take the lead in personally addressing the issue. A personal touch ... goes a long way. Often the brand is measured more on how it deals with the situation than on the situation itself."

The path of least resistance for many brands, however, is to apologise and withdraw the campaign or product.

"Whether or not they are in the right, some brands take the view that the cost and effort of fighting the argument is too high," says Morris.

By caving in so soon, are they not encouraging more disruption?

Houston says: "We have to be careful we don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to every little blip on social media. Sometimes an apology is necessary; pull the product off the shelves.

"But everything needs to happen in context."

If brands allow themselves to be bullied into submission or tailor their messaging predominantly to a social media audience, he says, communications will be condemned to a "grey culture" in which everyone is the same.

Prevention, of course, is better than cure, so the preferred course of action for all brands and their communications advisers would be to stay out of trouble in the first place. Go beyond the usual pre-campaign checks and balances to include crowdsourcing responses, says Kleyn.

But even that may not be enough in an era of instant offence and guilt by association. "The risk of fallout goes beyond what your company does," says Piehl. "What your supplier, distributor and franchisee do can also [affect] you. It is in this larger circle of influence that companies are ill-prepared to not only understand the risk, but to deal with it."