In the last few years, we have seen many examples of “advertising gone wrong,” as some brands, unintentionally or not, have created some culturally insensitive, tone-deaf, and downright offensive advertising campaigns. Yes, as the world continues to become more diverse, marketers and advertising teams will be continually tasked with developing content that appeals to multicultural populations. Even still, they must walk a fine line of creating campaigns that are engaging and culturally relevant, without alienating or offending any one group.

Let’s take a look at a few of the most controversial advertisements of the last few years:Nivea’s “White is Purity” campaign – An example of an overly-creative, under-supervised ad team that wasn’t thinking about (or likely reflective of) the general population. To some, the ad perpetuated the idea that white skin is flawless. A notion that many did not approve of as thousands quickly took to social media and censured the brand for this ad.

  1.  “Try My Bowls” by Jack In The Box – If the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it is that issues related to abuse of power and harassment are more prevalent across society than we could have imagined…not sure Jack In The Box got the message. “Try My Bowls” was a reminder that there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of sensitivity and awareness of larger societal issues.
  2. H&M’s “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” – This instance of cultural insensitivity could have been avoided given the right voices were in the room to raise this as a major red flag. It’s time to get serious about including diverse people at the table to ensure these instances are caught before they ever leave creative’s desk.
  3. Pepsi’s Live for Now Moments Anthem – Pepsi’s ad was an example of a brand’s tone-deafness to a movement as powerful as “Black Lives Matter.” Hard to believe that this made it through so many rounds of feedback and production and no one thought this could potentially be an issue. Perhaps this criticism fell on deaf ears, or no one ever thought to speak up in the first place.

All of these brands have in some way apologized and have taken responsibility for their missteps, though it’s important to keep in mind the long-term impact on a brand’s reputation and how hard it can be to recover. Unless real action is taken, and the target audience is at the brainstorming table, instances like the aforementioned will continue.

Some brands, though, are getting it right. Take Procter & Gamble’s “The Talk” advertisement, which spoke volumes to some of the challenges African Americans face in the U.S. The ad was celebrated by individuals as authentic and relatable, while bringing to light racial biases that many deal with every day.

Brands are waking up and are now seeing the impact that diverse perspectives, or lack thereof, can have on their efforts to appeal to various groups. That’s step one. Here are other steps they can take:

  1. When a brand decides it’s time to embark on some form multicultural outreach, they must truly understand what they mean by “multicultural.” Often used in the wrong context, this term has become jargon, speaking in general terms about reaching Hispanic, African American, or Asian American audiences. However, communications professionals and marketers know that multicultural consists of multiple cultures (and sub cultures) and it’s our job to help clients pinpoint exactly who they’re trying to reach.
  2. Once that’s been established, the right people must have seats at the table to help inform marketing campaigns and anticipate any negative backlash from diverse communities. Generally speaking, marketing and communications teams should reflect the communities in which they wish to serve. According to U.S. census data, minorities make up 41 percent of the US population (and growing) so we need to ensure those shaping external communications/marketing efforts reflect that.
  3. This last point is more related to organizational culture, but is equally as important, and that is encouraging people to speak up and flag instances that could result in negative backlash. As a minority at the table, it’s easy to feel marginalized and to be afraid to voice your opinion. In some of the previous examples, someone along the way had raised an eyebrow at the content but didn’t feel empowered to let their voice be heard. As professionals we can’t be afraid to have real, sometimes uncomfortable, conversations to develop messaging that resonates with diverse consumers. As organizations, we should create a safe space to have these conversations.

At a recent panel discussion hosted by the PRSA Foundation featuring top communications multicultural executives, one panelist used the term, “emerging majority” to describe the growing minority population in the U.S. This means brands can no longer afford to focus on multicultural audiences periodically but must shift their entire marketing/communications focus to include these groups. It’s time for brands to throw out all the old multicultural marketing frameworks and rewrite strategies with a diverse perspective.

Denvol Haye is a Senior Account Executive at Prosek Partners specializing in brand development and strategic communications.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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