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In a previous article we talked about how essential it is to have sensitivity when communicating.

We used the case studies of Dove and Dolce&Gabbana to understand how one can shock the sensibilities of others by going into topics such as racism, sexism, stereotypes, and body positivity. Today we take a couple of examples to talk instead about how NOT to use social and topical issues for marketing purposes.

Pepsi – Live for Now

It’s 2017. Pepsi decides to launch a new campaign that shows supermodel Kendall Jenner in the middle of a photo shoot. The model notices that an event is being held right near the set of the photo shoot and decides to quit her job to participate in it.

Now… have you seen the video I linked? What is wrong with this commercial?

The mistake lies in the fact that you have to look at that campaign within its historical, social and cultural context!

The context

A few months earlier Alton Sterling had been killed by a policeman. It had been the beginning of the grassroots movement dedicated to Black Lives Matter, a movement born to oppose racism and violence against African Americans.

That movement was marked by serious acts of violence suffered by the African American population to raise awareness of a serious and real problem.

It was therefore a historical period in which those issues were particularly topical. Police violence against protesters was particularly hot. An open wound in the American fabric. Especially since after the death of Alton Sterling, Leshia Evans, during a protest in Baton Rouge, was arrested just for getting too close to police officers.

Now look at these images side by side and you will understand why this was deeply inappropriate.

The Reactions

The public reacted as if Pepsi had appropriated a symbol of protest. The African-American community saw their plight exploited. And they were right. What were the reactions?

a beautiful and quick analysis of the incident is provided to us by the Washington Post’s YouTube channel. It is less than two minutes of video, I highly recommend viewing.

What happened next? Crisis Management

Pepsi withdrew the advertisement and apologised to consumers. “Pepsi wanted to convey a message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we did not succeed and we apologise for that”’ the US giant announced in a press release.

The web does not forgive so easily

Pepsi and Kendall Jenner were heavily attacked in the media and on social media. And even after their apology, America has not forgotten and Pepsi has made a bad impression, becoming a laughing stock on programmes such as Saturday Night Live and even being ‘mentioned’ in a hit TV series such as The Boys.

We are done here with the Pepsi case. I want to conclude by recommending another very interesting article 

Zara – The Jacket

Now you will think: “OK, what I just read is absurd! I understand that it may have happened once, but it can’t happen TWICE”.

but instead… ladies and gentlemen… Zara ‘The Jacket’.

The context

What is the problem behind this campaign?

The problem is that it is 2024 and every day the news, online news and social media update us on what is happening along the Gaza Strip between Israel and Palestine. And we are shown painful images like this one

and then we find ourselves at an advertising campaign “proud” to show us this…

Now, of course Zara responded by saying that those photos were taken by Tim Walker well before the Hamas attack on 7 October and that the purpose was to depict in a sculptor’s studio, clothes in a handmade, artistic context.

OK. But, as someone commented on Twit…er…on X, if you work in marketing and aren’t knowledgeable enough about current affairs to realise that what you’re posting is deeply inappropriate, then maybe you should change jobs. And honestly, I can only agree with that sentiment.

The Reactions

The hastag #BoycottZara has been trending on all social media, from X to Instagram, to TikTok (and yes… hashtags still exist, and should be used).

There were demonstrations around the world in front of Zara shops and in a couple of cases the shop windows were daubed with red paint. 

Certainly not a good way to enhance a brand.

What happened next?

What happened was that Zara apologised with this statement and removed that campaign from every platform.

What are we taking home?

I could stand there and list models, frameworks, books… but in the end it all boils down to ‘figure it out’.

This will be the third or fourth article I write on this blog that deals with this subject, (at least this one I recommend you read ) but it is good to reiterate:

when it comes to global, international and multicultural communication, you have to question everything!

The concept of goods-substitutes, the intended use, the cultural level, all those things related to Hofstede’s theories (the ‘onion’ and the ‘dimensions’)… all these things IMPOSE us to question EVERYTHING again! What is valid in one market-target is not necessarily valid in another, one has to respect cultural differences by customising not only the products but also the way they are communicated and the tone of voice. And above all, you have to deal with those who know! If you want to launch a campaign in China, make sure you have a focus group to submit your ideas to before you mess up, open yourself up to the idea that you have to look at things using other people’s eyes. Free yourself from the bias that ‘if it is good for me, it will be good for everyone’. 

It is not so, take note of it.