We are all about getting creative at the drawing board. And we know campaigns that speak to the emotions or employ a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor are often effective in attracting – and keeping – the attention of your company’s key audience. But it’s also imperative to make a strong distinction between being creative in how we get our audience’s attention and simply being offensive.

Take for instance the notorious 2017 Pepsi commercial featuring model and reality-TV star, Kendall Jenner. You can view the video here.

Pepsi obviously wanted to appeal to politically inclined Millennials – and used a protest as the setting. Jenner is at a photoshoot nearby, and she’s enthusiastically invited to join the throng of protesters (a diverse crowd of smiling, young, attractive folks). As the parade approaches a police barricade, Jenner skips up to the police officer and offers him a Pepsi. Any tension is magically dissolved – and the crowd erupts in cheers.

Despite there being no profanity or nudity, this commercial was still offensive to many viewers. Instead of enticing potential Pepsi fans, it resulted in a firestorm of angry social posts from people who felt the ad simplified and trivialized the real-life issues people were protesting (and continue to protest today). The ad portrayed protesting like a fun, lighthearted pastime, which activists and organizers know it certainly isn’t.

While you might not experience as serious of a blunder as Pepsi did, it can be easy to unintentionally offend your audience. While a campaign may be developed with pure intentions, here are three questions to ask yourself before spreading the word.


Does the Campaign Rely on Sweeping Generalizations or Stereotypes?

It can be easy to slip into stereotypes or assumptions about a certain group, especially if you don’t fully understand who your target audience is.

For example, you wouldn’t want to assume that those aged 65 and older don’t know how to use a smartphone or are technologically inept. Actual data paints a very different picture: older generations are using smartphones more than ever. Relying on this outdated assumption could prevent your marketing from resonating with potential brand loyalists. 

“Buyer personas,” a common term in marketing, help a company identify key demographics through fictional representations of who an ideal customer might be. While helpful in some circumstances, these personas can also be limiting and lead to making sweeping generalizations about your audience. Instead of solely relying on these personas, get to know your audience on a deeper level.  

You can develop a more well-rounded understanding of your target audience by:

  • Asking them to participate on forums that relate to your product or services.
  • Using live videos on social media to answer common questions and start valuable discussions.
  • Seeing how they interact online, paying close attention to their language, tone and sense of humor.
  • Analyzing responses to email surveys.
  • Meeting with potential customers in-person at tradeshows or conferences. 

Even if you might think an idea is funny or creative, it’s worth the extra effort to make sure it’s sensitive, too. The bottom line: don’t rely on harmful stereotypes based on race, gender, sexuality, age or otherwise. It’s lazy and far from creative. Instead, your marketing campaigns should treat your customers like the multi-faceted, complex people they are.


Have I Reached Out to Relevant Groups for Feedback?

Sometimes the best – and underappreciated way – to find out if your campaign could be offensive is to simply ask relevant parties for feedback. A technique used by companies for decades has been a focus group. These groups offer valuable insight on how an individual viewer may perceive your marketing campaign, and in turn, your overall brand. They provide an excellent opportunity to flesh out ideas and identify campaign weaknesses – well before it goes live.

Ideally, focus groups should:

  • Consist of five to 10 people with a commonality
  • Provide in-depth qualitative data
  • Stay focused on the campaign, allowing everyone to offer their personal thoughts  

While a highly effective tactic, not all companies have the time or resources to organize a formal focus group. In that case, it might be helpful to reach out to those within your network with specific experiences or demographic traits that relate to your campaign. They might offer advice or bring up perceptions that you may not have realized yourself.

Is your company providing a service or a product for middle-aged black men? LGBTQ youth? Women living in rural America? Immigrants? Ask your target audience what their thoughts are on your campaign idea. It can help you hone your concept, prevent controversies down the road and, ultimately, strengthen your marketing.


Is My Company Qualified to Comment on This Particular Issue?

The world is constantly changing, and organizations certainly need to keep up with current events and discourse. However, this doesn’t mean that they need to comment on current events any chance they get. Especially if the issue at-hand isn’t relevant to your company’s offerings, or the company isn’t qualified to comment. That’s partially why the aforementioned Pepsi ad did so poorly: the brand has nothing to do with protesting and should have avoided the topic altogether. There are numerous ways to appeal to Millennials without wading into that sensitive territory.

Marketing campaigns can be thought-provoking and challenge the status quo, but creative teams need to also consider any potential reaction or misinterpretation. Mistakes happen, sure, but asking these questions can prevent missteps from occurring in the first place. Companies can also avoid coming off as tone-deaf by partnering with an experienced PR and marketing team to craft campaigns that attract attention for all the right reasons.