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An image from Heineken’s recent ad that was followed with critical backlash for its racial undertones

Let’s face it. With millions of eyes glued to phones and tablets 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, very rarely do mistakes and blunders not get caught in the sift. This holds to be particularly true with some big-name companies’ advertising campaigns within the past couple years. In April of 2017, Pepsi experienced intense backlash over their ad featuring Kendall Jenner, which was to have said to trivialize the black lives matter movement. In the fall of that same year, Dove was under fire for what many said to be an incredibly offensive body wash ad featuring a black woman pulling off her shirt to reveal a white woman underneath. It wasn’t much later that in January of this year, H&M was asked to pull an ad featuring an African American child modeling a “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt.

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A photo of H&M’s website, where the printed hooded top was available for purchase

Now it is March, and Heineken is in the hot seat. The global brewer’s most recent ad has been called out for what’s been recognized as hardly subtle racist undertones. The ad starts out at a rooftop bar in the dead of summer. Reggae accompanies a chorus of cicadas and crickets. Behind the bar, a young man, hair pulled back into a bun with a van dyke beard polishes a glass, but something grabs his attention. He pulls out a pair of binoculars and finds a young light-skinned woman clearly disappointed with her glass of white wine. He acts quick, grabbing a bottle of Heineken, popping the cap, and sliding the bottle down the bar. The ad seems harmless so far, but the following montage is what caught viewers’ attention. The bottle slides past a series of dark-skinned visitors, including an older African American performer strumming his guitar to the music. The bottle ends next to the white woman’s glass of wine and the tag line pops up “Sometimes, lighter is better.” The young woman grabs the beer and smiles, the Bartender looks pleased with himself, and then the ad ends with the featured product.

Immediate backlash was met with the ad, including a tweet from Chance the Rapper criticizing the company as well as other advertising for “purposely putting out noticeably racist ads so they can get more views.” Heineken immediately pulled the ad and released a public apology.

The campaign was created in partnership with Publicis, a marketing company whose stated purpose is, “Creating leading strategies and powerful ideas that allow our clients’ brands to become unique, irreplaceable, in control and ahead.” Within the campaign, an alternative version of the ad was created and debuted in Ireland; this version is interesting to compare due to its few noticeable differences. Instead of reggae, a playful jazz tune sounds in the background. The bartender sends his beer off to a young white man on a date with a black woman, who receives a reminder that he has a meeting at 8:00 am the following morning. The beer passes a couple as well as a fish tank, but the same tag line is there and the same idea. Yet, there was no backlash. So, what happened?

CEO of Ten35 Ahmad Islam states, “What sometimes is acceptable in Europe isn’t acceptable in the U.S. and I think that a lot of time the failure comes in not really evaluating the impact that it is going to have in a particular region…You have to be cognizant of not just what your intent is, but you have to be cognizant 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…We are in a hyper-sensitive racial environment right now.”

With that being noted, what can marketing teams do to prevent cases like this from happening? E.J. Schultz explained in his article on AdWeek that, “The mistakes come as the marketing industry struggles to make gains on racial diversity among top personnel.” According to a report released by the Association of National Advertisers, 87% of top marketing executives are white, leaving only 13% of executives creating some form of diversity. In regard to this, Schultz references Ahmad Islam in that a lot of the time, decisions being made are of largely white consensus, which tremendously lacks perspectives of different races and cultures. Islam concludes that this creates an environment where “there is no one in the room [to offer that perspective] or when they are in the room they basically get run over by consensus.”

So, what can be learned? Schultz concludes his article with a great place where companies can start, and what he calls the bottom line: “Marketers must create an open environment where feedback can come from anywhere.” Teams must be open to criticism and ideas, perspectives and viewpoints. Each voice matters and if a company’s culture doesn’t embrace that, they too may be the next ones in the hot seat.

From a marketing management perspective, here are some questions to think about:

  • What can marketing managers do to ensure multiple perspectives are represented if the team perspectives are limited?
  • What are some examples of important social issues marketers need to be aware of?
  • Is there a fine line between exploiting and supporting social causes in marketing? How does a campaign potentially exploit? Support?