Consumers Can See Through an Agency’s Tone-Deaf Ads

Memes and social media stunts can end up being PR nightmares if handled incorrectly

Diversity efforts in advertising need to be genuine or risk isolating consumers who see through forced efforts. Getty Images
Headshot of Dakari Dunning

Today, it’s increasingly important to know, learn and mold the persona your social account or brand portrays. Who do you want your brand to be? Who do consumers think you are? Do certain target demographics view you as an outsider? Are you a complete reflection of your audience?

Brands look at consumers through a lens of either “for you” or “not for you.” Typically, what made a particular brand “for you” was reserved to its use value and whether or not your peers were consuming the products.

As a minority, I felt there was always an extra factor required for my personal identification with a brand. I’d look for images of myself in that brand’s ads and hope something would align with me and my peers’ specific interests. Before becoming a copywriter, I didn’t know how few minorities worked in the ad industry. Today, I always pay attention to the smallest things in brand voice, like slang, cultural references and granular details, like which users are retweeted by brands. I look at social content from the brand’s point of view, working to imagine the real person behind it.

In the same way marketers and advertisers create targeted customer personas, consumers create their own views of a brand’s persona. It’s extremely important for brands to know who their audience thinks they look like. You can see these discrepancies when brands develop messaging to target a specific demographic and more so when that targeted audience finds it inappropriate or offensive.

What often happens is those newly targeted demographics call brands out for suddenly being so inclusive.

You’d think inclusive messaging would be a plus and everyone wants to be seen by big brands, but what often happens is those newly targeted demographics call brands out for suddenly being so inclusive. Minorities believe the best way to talk to an audience you don’t belong to is to have an influencer from that audience do it for you. From the perspective of a black social media community manager, clients and their stakeholders may not fully represent me as a consumer.

When I create content, I often have to get into character to reach a client’s preferred audience, removing many facets that give me and members of my community our own unique identity. At times, I transform into a generic, unidentifiable person who’s not obviously black. I find myself changing the language and phrases I use to be more “appropriate” or “palatable” for a white audience. Whatever it takes to mask my real identity. Why? Because my type of black has been and still is (for most brands) deemed off brand.

My colloquial language, as innocent as it is, is still viewed as uneducated, unappealing and substandard, even without spelling errors and perfect punctuation. These small suppressions of innocuous cultural aspects reach beyond language and into nearly every facet of daily life. For me and many other African Americans, portraying a white individual can be a critical method of survival and the determinant of professional success. A white individual portraying their idea of a minority audience is not and has never been a necessity. It’s simply not cool, to say the very least.

Using slang etymology to reach a black audience can result in disastrous social media backlash and turn into a PR nightmare for brands. Terms and phrases like “issa,” “bye Felicia” and “shade” can have a strong negative impact on a social campaign. Additionally, taking advantage of memes, such as BBQ Becky, can highlight injustices faced in the black community, even if some cultures re-meme the subjects to make relatable jokes out of their plight. Though these memes may be created in jest by the black community, it would be wildly inappropriate for a brand that didn’t have the public perception of being for black people to participate in the fun.

From the outside looking in, seeing these characters appear in different stories can seem like an easy opportunity to generate engagement for your brand, but it’s the context that’s not stated and is only understood that makes this meme more than a lighthearted joke.

One prime example is the recent publicity-generating burger campaign by IHOP. I initially didn’t notice IHOP was only replacing P’s. I noticed a slew of words that didn’t start with B being replaced with B’s. This is directly reminiscent of Blood gang culture. It’s common practice for Blood members to change all words starting with C to B in an act of disrespect to their rival Crip gang. Crips do the inverse of this.

The IHOP rebrand basically put emphasis on the letter B. Consumer attention was high with community management teams switching every P to a B. It’s clever. It’s well thought out. No harm done, right?

Black Twitter immediately associated IHOP’s messaging with gang affiliation. If I was in the room, would I have greenlit the campaign knowing what I know? I lean toward yes, however, the biggest question I have is “Did IHOP know, and if not, was it because of a lack of diversity?”

If you’re looking to take advantage of a viral meme, hypersensitivity divisiveness is at a peak in the following scenarios.

  • If your content is based on a viral trend and you don’t know the source and intended original context.
  • If the content you’re planning to use seems somewhat offensive or controversial, odds are it is and could have a negative blowback on your campaign.
  • Imitation is not always flattering, especially if content can be traced back to material some may find offensive or that pokes fun at a group of people.

Diversifying your surroundings is the best way to become more culturally sensitive and knowledgeable. When targeting an audience, look to see if any other people in the decision-making process are part of that audience. Work to market products and services to all groups, but in a way that speaks honestly throughout advertising and social media campaigns. Understanding these issues can be the difference between connecting with or completely alienating target audiences.

@dakaridunning Dakari Dunning holds a B.S. in marketing and an M.S. in digital and social media marketing, both from the University of Alabama. With his finger on the pulse, he produces key insights and content for Sparkloft Media clients around the world.