Recently, a client asked for my opinion on a marketing campaign they were considering. Part of the brand included a color word that referred to the color of a product’s label. The client wanted to know if the color word could draw accusations of racism. Should they change the brand to avoid controversy, or could they proceed safely? In the past, it would be rare that a company would put this level of thought into such a seemingly small thing—the choice of a single word in a large branding campaign. But right now, the risk of a negative public reaction is just too high.
Consider a few examples. In 2011, the skincare company Nivea ran an ad in the Middle East for their new deodorant: Nivea Invisible for Black and White. The ad depicted a white woman wearing flowing, white clothes, with the tagline: “White is Purity.” The uproar caused the ad to be pulled almost immediately, and Nivea apologized for the wording. (The association of the words “white” and “purity” is straight out of the Nazi handbook—and Nivea is a German company . . . hmmm.)
And who could forget the tone-deaf Pepsi ad run earlier this year, showing Kendall Jenner healing the deep divisions between police and protestors by offering a cop a pop. Pepsi invited us to “join the conversation,” thus recasting actual life-or-death struggles and protests as mere “conversation.” It didn’t help that the title of the campaign was “Live for Now Moments Anthem,” a word salad that turned racial injustice into a “fun” music video “moment.”
And then there’s “Blue Lives Matter,” which conflates a profession (blue = police) with a racial identity (black = African American). These color words represent so much more than skin tones or uniforms. They are a part of the highly charged discourse in the media; using them carelessly or lightly would be not only insensitive, but very destructive for your brand.
How can content providers avoid these kinds of mistakes? The answer is twofold: awareness and research. Marketers and content developers need to be aware of the language used by the media, by the government, and by organizations on the left and right. Could a name or tagline have negative meaning to people who aren’t you? Have you considered points of view that are different from those in your team bubble?
This is where research is your friend. You don’t have to launch multi-city, qualitative research groups for web copy; but do share your work with colleagues, partners, or friends who—again—are not you. And if someone offers a dissenting opinion, listen to them. Someone probably did point out that “White is Purity” was perhaps not the best tagline, given WWII and just about everything else in history. But some C-level person probably said, “Nah, it’s fine. We live in a post-racial society. Really, it’s fine.”
Don’t be that person.
Language is power—use it wisely.
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