Brands & Cultural Sensitivity

Dove, H&M, Heineken – what do all these brands have in common?  They have each come under fire for releasing controversial ad campaigns that many considered lacking in racial and cultural sensitivity.

Ads Under Fire

Last year, Dove released ads featuring women of different origins removing their shirts to reveal a new woman. However, it was the image of a black woman, removing her shirt to reveal a white woman which sparked controversy and upset. The brand assured that the intent was to convey that Dove Body Wash was to be a celebration of diversity. It missed the mark. Many felt the ad insinuated that black skin is dirty and white skin is clean.

Shortly after the new year, H&M released an image of an African American boy on its website sporting a hoodie that said, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” The problem, however, lies in the fact that the terms monkey, ape and gorilla have been used throughout history as a racial slur geared toward African Americans.  While the retailer featured Caucasian children sporting tops with other animals, none of them had a negative connotation attached to the ethnicity wearing it.

Would it have made a difference if the retailer also showed a Caucasian with the monkey hoodie on? How could this have gone through so many approval channels without one person bringing up the fact that this may be viewed as racially and culturally insensitive?

And even most recently, Heineken has come under scrutiny for its ad showcasing a bartender sliding a beer down the counter, bypassing three dark-skinned, African American people to reach its destination of a light-skinned woman with words appearing on the screen “sometimes lighter is better.” If you aren’t African American, you may not be aware that there continues to be a light skin versus dark skin debate within its own community going as far back as slavery.

The Need for Cultural Sensitivity

Are these ads racist or are people becoming overly sensitive today? Are brands intentionally doing this as a public relations stunt? I would like to think that no brand goes in to intentionally offend a particular group. However, responsible brands, agencies, partners and vendors must be aware of cultural sensitivity.

According to the Red Shoe Movement, “Cultural sensitivity is being aware that cultural differences and similarities between people exist without assigning them a value – positive or negative, better or worse, right or wrong.”  To sum it up, we need to be aware and recognize that there are certain beliefs and experiences shared among a community of people (whether that community is based on gender, sexual preference, race, religion, etc.) that outsiders of the group may never be able to relate to.  And while I think this is perfectly normal, we all need to develop a level of empathy.

A Strategy for Change

So, how do we tackle this head on?  Here are a few of my thoughts.

1. Recognize and embrace diversity.

To do this, each brand needs to ask themselves the following questions. First, is your brand unintentionally leaving out a group of people based on a stereotypical belief? And second, is it possible that group X has a different perspective that can prove valuable to your messaging? Nowadays, consumers are more aware of what you aren’t showing in your campaign. For example, if I don’t see people who look like me in your luxury car campaign, are you implying that we cannot afford it?

2. Test your messages in private before going public.

Say you have an ad featuring gay and lesbian people. One option is to consider hiring an agency focused on a specialized market, like the gay and lesbian community. Another is to perform focus groups, sharing the messaging and creative with those who are part of that community prior to public release. (Hey, BIG YAM does this!) Lastly, consider building a community of people who represent those showcased in your campaign so their point of view will be heard. Whichever approach you take, it will help shape your campaign and may save your brand from public backlash.

3. Focus on them, NOT you.

The last thing to note is this – recognize and accept that your perspective may be biased. You are not them.
I would love to chat with you about your thoughts on this topic. Connect with me on LinkedIn at