Remember in January when Gillette launched an advertising campaign scolding men for their toxic masculinity? As it turns out, walking into the landmine that is social identity politics wearing blinders isn’t good for the bottom line. Even if that’s not really what the ad was about.

Ultimately, though, the intention behind the ad doesn’t matter. Reception is everything and if your audience feels scolded, then they’re going to react. That’s what happens when you lose the narrative.

Gillette’s handlers, Proctor and Gamble (PG.NYSE), suffered an $8 billion writedown in their value in response to the ad-campaign. They’ve since changed course and started focusing on their next ad campaign which focuses on football players or firefighters or something.

The culture war is going strong and brands like Target (TGT.NYSE), Nike (NKE.NYSE) and Starbucks (SBUX.Q) are each feeling both the positive and negative effects for the side they’ve taken in the issues surrounding race, gender and sexuality. But if there are any observable trends when it comes to courting intersectionality and identity politics, it’s that today’s social hero is tomorrow’s cultural villain. Except when Gillette missteps and it’s time to do their time in the gulag after their social-media show trial, they will have alienated 50% of their customer base.


Source: giphy

Take Kendall Jenner (please!) and her Pepsi ad. Here’s the general jist of the ad: multi-million dollar teen mogul spots protest and decides to join in. Brings pepsi for cop. Protest goes away and all the negativity with it, because someone shared a pepsi.

You can watch it here, if you want:

So basically, Pepsi mistook social justice movements for opportunities to sell soda, which manages to be both disrespectful and hilarious at the same time. Naturally, this blew up in Pepsiso’s (PEP.Q) face.

Here’s another example:

Dove landed themselves in trouble for a Facebook advertisement in 2017 for producing an ad that their audience saw as insensitive and racist. The video showed a black woman removing her brown shirt and transforming into a white woman in a peach shirt, who then changed into a South Asian woman wearing tan. Critics lambasted the company for the unconscious claim that dark skin is dirty and undesirable, which again wasn’t Dove’s intention with the piece.

But again, intention doesn’t matter. Everything is perception and a large part of perception is interpretation.

The space wherein the culture war is happening has a capricious ever changing landscape, and where what was solid ground to stand on in terms of ideas a year ago, is quicksand now. That makes keeping up with what is relevant, salient and inoffensive nearly impossible for people trying to leverage the cultural zeitgeist to sell their products.

Advertising, like politics, involves controlling the narrative, and if you can’t tell your own story, then someone is going to tell it for you and you won’t like what they have to say.

Unless, of course, you’re Colin Kaepernick or Nike, in which case, carry on.

—Joseph Morton

Written By:

Joseph Morton

Joseph is a Vancouver-based author and journalist with both a communications degree and journalism diploma (and a few novels) under his belt. His joie de vivre is to spin difficult technical topics into more human-centric narratives. Buy him a coffee and he'll talk your ear off for hours about privacy issues, blockchain, cryptocurrency and martial arts. Don't talk to him if you're either a tomato, a bully, or if you're not a fan of either 1984 or Tender is the Night. No. You can still talk to him. Just be prepared to be told why you're wrong.

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