Consumers’ expectations for brands continue to increase. The vast majority want brands to demonstrate a sense of corporate responsibility by championing causes and advocating for social accountability. These factors have transitioned from aspirational objectives to requirements and provide the baseline for an evolving relationship between consumers and corporations.
This relationship does not exist without problems. Brands now have an additional level of social and political responsibility to consider when executing a marketing campaign. Defining the parameters and limitations of this new relationship presents brands with the opportunity to set a precedent and establish the future framework for their position.
The key question: what is their level of obligation to these current issues? To what extent are brands and advertising responsible for self-regulation and self-reflection? Where is the line between sensitivity for the audience and an oversensitive audience? “Lighter Is Better” forces Heineken to address the implications of these questions and consider the consequences of a failure to view a campaign through multiple lenses.
The latest advertisement from Heineken represents a strong deviation from the brand’s previous work seen in "Worlds Apart." “Lighter Is Better” features a bartender opening a bottle of Heineken Light and passing it down the bar to a female patron who appeared visibly disappointed by her glass of [white] wine. Innocuous enough, the tagline “Sometimes, lighter is better” flashes to end the spot. After the spot’s successful debut in Ireland in June of last year, the company ran the exact same piece in the U.S. this March.
Unfortunately for Heineken, what works in one country may not work in another. The devil — or disaster — is in the details. The bottle passes a series of darker-skinned actors before arriving in the hands of the lighter-skinned actress. The juxtaposition of events and tagline has celebrities and news outlets decrying the advertisement’s racist undertones. It took less than two days for Heineken to pull the spot and issue a formal apology.
What was said:
"There's not much question that this could very easily be viewed as offensive, depending on someone's lens to the world," says Ahmad Islam, CEO of Ten35, whose previous agency experience includes working on MillerCoors brands. "You have to be cognizant of not just what your intent is, but...of people's mindset and the state of the world we are living in right now and the context in which stuff is being consumed."
Lessons to be learned:
Beware the power of the people. — The significance of influencers in the current media environment presents nothing new; however, the ability to quantify their presence or absence introduces additional elements to the equation. Rihanna's recent, public dissatisfaction with a Snapchat advertisement cost the company $800 million, and Kylie Jenner’s exodus from the platform lost Snapchat $1.3 billion in market value. Rihanna’s sentiment alone cost Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel $150 million.
Brands no longer control the narrative; instead, influencers create and dominate the discussion. They maintain the capability to reorient the discussion in a direction of their choosing. Backlash over the Heineken advertisement exploded after popular artist Chance the Rapper accused the brand of racism on Twitter. Affirmation from the majority of his 7.36 million followers exploded in negative publicity for Heineken.
Take calculated risks. — Deliberate risks represent an essential element of successful advertising. They help brands differentiate themselves from competitors and facilitate memorable campaigns. Ample opportunities exist to experiment with new techniques or explore an unfamiliar approach; however, brands should exercise caution when exploring themes or topics with implications for a community’s identity. Core elements of expression and identity — especially of the minority by the majority — should not serve as a testing ground for innovation. Regardless of a brand's harmless intentions, they do not get to decide its interpretation by the groups in question.
Set the precedent. — The negative implications of an ill-received campaign move at unprecedented speeds in the digital era. As consumers become more and more outspoken against actions that they find distasteful, brands need to decide how receptive they should be to these criticisms. Their actions establish the framework for future interactions and determine consumers’ expectations for brands’ responsiveness. Recent examples include outcry from musical artists The Weeknd and G-Easy in response to H&M’s “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” sweatshirt, resulting in its removal, in addition to public objection to one of Dove’s recent Facebook advertisements, which led the company to delete the spot. These actions allow consumers to drive the conversation and define the aforementioned questions before advertisers decide for themselves.
Include others. — The year’s problematic advertisements share a common thread of tone-deaf racial indiscretions. Several of these spots leave viewers confused and questioning the judgment of the agencies who published the offending pieces; however, a cursory glance at the numbers explains the lapse in judgment. A recent Adobe study of advertising creatives reveals the industry’s complicated relationship with diversity:
- Fifty-four percent believe that diversity in the industry has gotten better over the past five years; 39 percent believe it remains the same; and 7 percent believe it has declined.
- Creatives of color are twice as likely to encounter barriers to tools and trainings necessary to be successful in the industry.
Most importantly, a March 2018 report by the Association of National Advertisers revealed the absence of diversity among industry decision-makers. Only 13 percent of top marketing executives, such as CMO,s are people of color, and only 3 percent of the top jobs are held by African-Americans. Allowing individuals from these — and other — communities a seat at the proverbial table would go far in avoiding the backlash facing Heineken and would benefit agency campaigns overall. Eighty-two percent of respondents stated that “my most successful projects or initiatives were produced by a diverse team.”
These statistics reveal one of the core problems surrounding the spot: regardless of Heineken's intentions, the gaff could have been prevented had a representative from this group had a say. The question is not the brand's intentions, but could their mistakes have been prevented? One could argue yes.
Attention spans are short[er]. — Consumers’ shortening attention spans continue to present challenges for marketers. With an attention span of less than eight seconds, content can engage a goldfish for longer than it holds the interest of the average consumer. While unfortunate, this is nothing new. Heineken’s debacle reminds marketers of the broader implications of these shortened attention spans. Heineken’s historic connection with minority consumers did not factor into consumers’ decision-making process. These shortened attention spans are not exclusive to an individual spot but apply to overall brands and campaigns in the long run. For example, experts postulate that Dove’s recent public relations disaster did more damage to the brand because of its storied history of female empowerment and support. Brands must work just as hard to maintain a benevolent legacy as they do to cultivate and create it.