Reflections on Representation & Brand Blunders
At the start of each year, my daughter and I hedge bets on what we think will happen in the course of that year. We have a couple of very interesting categories, ranging from politics to climate change…. Yes, we go there.
Usually, I win big. By this I mean, my baby girl could almost qualify for a tax-deductible for the expenses she has incurred. But 2020 was such a wild card, we were both way way off on almost everything. Well with the exception of one prediction.
An international brand will publish a culturally insensitive ad or fortify a biased stereotype of a minority group.
No matter the year, problematic ads have become a mainstay in the industry. So much so, the cycle of events has become rather predictable.
- It will quickly gain traction
- There’ll be an outpouring of rage calling for a boycott
- The obvious public apology
- Soon after the masses will forget or ride the next wave of outrage.
And that’s exactly what transpired. The other common theme in all these brand blunders I have had the displeasure to live through is the debate on representation. Not just in the ad campaigns but also in the rooms they are made.
Why does representation matter?
In many Black and African households, Wakanda was an ethereal experience. It certainly was in mine. To see my children identify with superheroes with skin tones as deep as theirs was a welcome first for all of us.
If Black Panther taught us anything, it’s that representation really matters. The impact was widely felt for both young and old, male and female.
Girls struggling with identity had their beauty validated. Little boys could finally see themselves as heroes, superheroes might I add. In an era deeply influenced by pop culture, this representation felt like the ultimate seal of approval that was only accessible to our white counterparts.
This then begs the question;
If representation can set our hopes and dreams ablaze, what does misrepresentation do?
It’s no secret that these blunders can cause irreparable harm to the reputation of a brand. Only the lucky few are able to get away with just a hint of public uproar. But even in the worst case, the true cost of brand blunders, especially the culturally insensitive ones, goes beyond the customers and revenue lost. It’s the dream deferred or worse still extinguished.
Some of these biases are deep-seated and take years to undo. It’s only in the recent past that we started to call out problematic ads. Before we found our voice, many of us have grown up with the wrong view of ourselves. Our truths were misrepresented and never corrected.
The onus is on us!
As an industry, we have to proactively work to challenge our campaigns by investing in the growth and development of our marketing teams. Companies have to not only hire but also amplify the voices of diversity. It is only through learning from one another in the back rooms that we can stop the trauma that is insensitive and biased representations.
When in doubt, kindly hire an agency that has its pulse on culture and representation.