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Tuesday / January 18.
HomeNewsPR to the rescue? The year of the catastrophic campaign has the ad world looking for answers

PR to the rescue? The year of the catastrophic campaign has the ad world looking for answers

Pepsi Kendall Jenner


In the latest jaw-dropping campaign misstep this year, Dove was forced to apologize on Twitter after a campaign on Facebook showed a black woman using its body lotion, then becoming white after removing her T-shirt.

Following accusations of racism, the post was removed and Dove tweeted an apology, saying it “missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully.”




Speaking about the criticism in The Guardian, Lola Ogunyemi, the black actress in the campaign, said she felt proud when the content was released.

However, she seemed to acknowledge the comms failings, saying: “While I agree with Dove’s response to apologize for any offense caused, it could have also defended its creative vision and choice to include me, a dark-skinned black woman, as a face of the campaign.”

Ogunyemi also pointed out members of the public have reason to mistrust Dove after a similar backlash in July over a campaign that focused on opposing opinions about breastfeeding in public. Similarly, Dove drew scorn in May after creating limited edition bottles of its body wash that were designed to represent various body types. Again, it caused widespread offense, rather than inspiring body confidence.

Sophie Kostrowski, founder and head of creative at ad agency Live & Wired, said Dove’s latest campaign was unlikely to be the last of such controversies.

“The advertising world requires us to target broader markets than before, yet the lack of diverse thinking is becoming apparent,” she says. “You know that meme doing the rounds of a very grey, white, and male room deciding on bills about women’s rights? It is very similar.”



The year of the campaign crash

The same issues seem to have afflicted Pepsi and McDonald’s. In April, Pepsi launched a disastrous campaign with model Kendall Jenner (see main image). A month later, McDonald’s U.K. released the “dead dad” video. As with Pepsi, the campaign was slammed for how insensitively it dealt with a serious issue.

So, is it time PR pros wrestle more control from their advertising counterparts to ensure ill-conceived campaigns don’t slip through the net? Or do the bad campaigns reflect a wider problem of brands’ lack of authenticity?

Speaking at the Public Relations and Communications Association conference in September, WE Communications president, international, Alan VanderMolen, argued PR pros might struggle to achieve this, expressing concern that the industry was in “deep shit.”

He said comms pros were taking a “back seat” to marketers.

VanderMolen told the conference in-house departments and firms were “running toward the budgets, therefore marketers are getting a larger say,” adding the PR industry was “losing its distinctive edge.”

In contrast, Mark Perkins, former creative director at MHP, which created the award-winning Missing Type campaign, says comms practitioners do increasingly have a place at the table alongside ad agencies and clients, providing a steer as “brand guardians.”

“PR pros have a responsibility to see how a campaign can be construed through multiple lenses, from various audience segments through to the media,” Perkins says. “That means being culturally, socially, and politically aware.”

“Some of the most obvious fails have come when brands have gone with a creative that tries to be ‘of the moment’ or inclusive, but does it in such a tokenistic, clumsy, or sanctimonious way that it becomes excruciating, offensive, or both,” he adds.

Perkins says campaigns that achieve the opposite of this – such as the latest Paddy Power TV campaign featuring a man in a wheelchair going to a soccer match – are the exception rather than the rule, arguing most advertising is bland and “instantly forgettable.”



“That’s why comms pros are becoming much more than a safeguard at the planning stage,” he explains. “We are being called upon to bring the insight, intuition, and experience that comes with working in earned media to craft disruptive campaigns and content that generate positive news, conversation, and sentiment for a fraction of the production cost.”

Brands under pressure to engage consumers

Andrew Bloch, founder and group MD of consumer PR agency Frank, argues experienced marketing executives should know how to approve effective ad content and determine what is “good” and “bad,” saying consumers are “fed up” with bad adverts.

Bloch notes people are putting up “bullshit buffers” to deflect the thousands of commercial messages they are bombarded with every day.

“Brands are having to work much harder to try and engage people and penetrate these buffers in order to get noticed,” he says. “It is this desperate effort to grab attention and generate engagement that is putting brands under pressure to come up with something interesting.”

Bloch urges the ad industry to consider a more integrated approach and work more closely with comms experts from across PR.

“The ad industry needs to work with comms experts who will be able to better reflect the cultural points of view and reactions their campaigns will generate,” he says. “Often, their strategy is good, but their execution is poor. They need to avoid self-referential broadcasting of messages and not become so encased in their own brand bubble that they fail to remember people outside may – and often do – have a different point of view.”


It is this desperate effort to grab attention and generate engagement that is putting brands under pressure to come up with something interesting

Andrew Bloch, Frank


While Bloch calls for more integration, Bruce McLachlan, MD of Fever, suggests brands should consider less PR.

“We’re seeing the gap between what a brand says, and what it actually does, being laid increasingly bare by the 24/7 scrutiny organizations are now under,” McLachlan says.

He adds that if brands were faking authenticity, eventually they would be “caught out.”

“It’s the reality of the world we now operate in,” McLachlan continues. “While PR is unquestionably more adept at understanding the nuance of public opinion, and having greater PR involvement across all brand comms would nip many issues in the bud, the real answer is not more PR. It’s for a brand to build a modern, diverse workforce that better reflects their customer base, and to find a purpose they can be honest about.”

While McLachlan may be calling for brands to take more control, the PR industry could shout louder to ensure disastrous campaigns never see the light of day.


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