Does Racially Tone-Deaf Marketing Actually Work?

22 Mar

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The recent issue with H&M putting a young black model in a shirt that said, “Coolest monkey in the jungle” certainly created its share of backlash. However, the attention that the brand received from it created more attention for the brand as a whole. As they say, “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

Does racially tone-deaf marketing actually work? Let’s try to take a look at this admittedly sensitive subject from a professional perspective.

Marketers are not stupid.

The brands that “find themselves” in hot water from a racially insensitive ad may not be so naive. The huge brands that have been in the news lately are top tier companies. Companies don’t get to that level by overlooking details.

We live in a world where “leaked” sex tapes create legitimate celebrities. One of the easiest ways to make it above the fold is to get a demographic protesting you. It is relatively inexpensive, and most importantly, it works. The proliferation of big data makes the behavior of large groups easier and easier to predict. Top marketers have access to all of this data, which means their decisions are usually among the best informed of any department.

Diversity is a problem within marketing.

The percentage of blacks, Hispanics, and women in the ad industry do not coincide with the percentage of those groups in the population. Only 6.6% of people in the ad industry are black; 10% are Hispanic; 11% of those employed are women.

Racially insensitive ads may not have to go through as much vetting within the ad industry, which may explain why they continue to occur despite the backlash. The decisions made in the war room will quickly become about profit and acquisition metrics, rather than morals under these conditions. If the numbers say that an ad will work, then it is likely to be run.

The message will fade, but the brand will stay.

The uproar that the public has over racially insensitive ads is relatively short-lived. However, the brand moves on as a more famous version of itself. Eventually, people forget why the reason they heard of the brand was from a racially insensitive ad. They will simply remember the brand. H&M, for instance, enjoyed a great deal of publicity from hip-hop stars who remarked that they “didn’t even know that H&M carried men’s clothes” until the “monkey in the jungle” crisis. Would they have been talking about the clothing in H&M if the ad had never run? Keep in mind that H&M runs ads with men’s clothing all the time – the message that hit was one of insensitivity, and whether we like it or not, it worked.

No one will admit it, but from Pepsi to H&M to Dove soaps, racially tone-deaf marketing seems to have its place in the modern business landscape. Now that there are enough case studies to determine the financial and emotional backlash, companies have a benchmark to quantify the positive and negative results. This may be why it keeps happening. Employ this morally questionable tactic at your own peril, but keep in mind that your competitors may actually be considering this strategy to gain leverage over you.

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