Bic Ad Debacle: PR Failure or Plain Old Sexism?

Guest post by Anam Khan.

This is a guest post by Anam Khan, an MS Communications candidate at Columbia University.

“Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, work like a boss.”

Pen manufacturer Bic released this advertisement in honor of National Women’s Day in South Africa earlier this month. The glaring irony here is that women are being encouraged to think like men, which is the polar opposite of what a message centered on female empowerment should convey.

I racked my brain trying to assess how looking like a girl while thinking like a man is supposed to make me feel inspired. Why can’t I look, act and think like a girl all at once? How can I benefit more from thinking like a man?

I’m not sure whether Bic was fully aware of its severely misguided message.

As a communications graduate student, I first wondered how companies are allowed to sign off on such poorly chosen language. What is the usual vetting process for an ad campaign? Could Bic (seriously) not think of any other way to ‘celebrate’ women? The company is at the forefront of a public relations catastrophe – one that requires an investigation of its overarching strategic communications approach in order to address the following question: Was the Bic debacle a careless mistake or a reflection of the institution’s sexist belief system?

According to Jesse Scinto, a lecturer for the MS Programs in Strategic Communications and Communications Practice at Columbia University, one of the first steps toward adeptly handling a crisis communications predicament is to anticipate the type of problems that could arise. Scinto says:

“This requires honest self-assessment and some imagination. Advertising is risky because of the inherent conflict between the need for attention and the need to be truthful and considerate of the audience.”

Bic did not anticipate this crisis, nor was it prepared for the well-deserved backlash. Scinto explained how it’s actually quite easy for these mistakes to happen since advertisers look for ways to break through the clutter of competing messages. In their attempts to push the envelope, they sometimes go too far.

Scinto also suggested that companies should cultivate an implementation plan prior to launching a campaign. As a result, they will have a chance to think about key messages and remedial actions in advance so they can prepare messages in line with organizational values.

Bic recently issued an apology, which does not appear to follow the guidelines of a solid implementation plan. It is more an admittance of guilt rather than a reassurance of the company’s values.

Even if Bic had prepared an implementation plan to instill confidence in its corporate values, the company’s intrinsic principles may actually work against the brand. The ad, amidst all of its imperfections, also had “#HappyWomensDay” written on the bottom left corner. It’s unfortunate that a campaign designed to celebrate women turned out to be a scathing insult.

Kate Permut, a marketing consultant and integrated brands instructor at Columbia University, referred to the campaign as “ill conceived,” because it reflects corporate values that are less than modern. She added that the marketing department looked at consumers as numbers rather than people.

Robin Beck, a graduate from Columbia University’s MS in Communications Practice program, emphasized that the advertisement may not be a reflection of the company as a whole, but it is a reflection of that particular branch.

“I’m sure more than one person approved this, which is frightening and perhaps indicative of gender values.”

Scinto pointed out that it’s hard for him to generalize about the company’s values without being privy to Bic’s internal decision making.

“It’s likely that dozens of people had a hand in creating this particular message. Either no one realized the language was problematic, or else some did but didn’t feel empowered to stop the process. Either way, there’s probably an organizational dynamic involved.”

There is a possibility that Bic’s campaign was a dissatisfying blend of inefficient planning and archaic values. Now is the time for a complete overhaul of the company’s organizational foundation so that errors are meticulously reviewed before being released into the world.

The people who did not see the campaign’s wording as a point of concern must also be weeded out – they apparently found no issue with women perceiving their surroundings through a masculine lens.

There shouldn’t be room for a mindset like that in the workplace, let alone this century.