Mistakes, Apologies & Culture

Last week several brands made the news because of their recent advertising efforts. Two found themselves backpedaling away from controversy while one embraced past mistakes to claim a fresh start. But this wasn’t just about creative choices – those are always subjective – it was about having (or not having) an understanding of culture, not just your core customer.

Hyundai had to pull a spot in which a man tries to commit suicide by inhaling the exhaust fumes from his car, only to be thwarted because his Hyundai has 100% water emission instead of deadly carbon monoxide. In a perfect vacuum, one could see the cleverness of the idea, but ads don’t exist in a vacuum and the tide started rolling against Hyundai when a blogger wrote an open-letter to the car manufacturer and their ad agency explaining her feelings about the ad. Her father had successfully taken his own life in that way. Just a few days later, a study from the CDC was released showing that the suicide rates among middle-aged Americans has risen sharply. The New York Times in fact called out that data shows “[M]ore people now die of suicide than in car accidents.” Adding another macabre element to an ad that shows a man trying to take his own life with the aid of his vehicle. I’m not providing a link to the ad in question because it has been taken down.

Mountain Dew also had to deal with a controversial ad last week. A spot directed by Tyler the Creator, the front man of rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Now, Odd Future is not everyone’s cup of tea, and Tyler’s twitter account is not for the faint of heart (very NSFW). They are however quite popular with Mtn. Dew’s target consumer so getting Tyler and Co. to put together a spot makes sense. Again, I’m not linking to the spot because it has been taken down, but it involves a police lineup featuring four African-American males (all played by members of Odd Future) and a talking goat. So, yes, it’s absurdism, but it’s also an all African-American police lineup, which probably isn’t going to go over to well with some people. The ad also features an bruised and battered white female, who is being asked to identify the perpetrator of her injuries. It’s in fact the goat, who verbally threatens her to the point where she refuses to make an identification. Again, yes, absurd, but a setup in which a white woman has been badly beaten but is too scared to speak up and she looks at a group of African-Americans (and yes, the goat) is a bad idea. Really bad.

Both cases seem to me to be ones in which the brand was a little too insulated from culture. They seemed to lack a certain awareness of bigger issues that are shaping the public discourse, and when you put something out in public, it’s no longer “just for our fans,” it’s quickly available for everyone to see.

JC Penney, the newest client of Y&R New York, had a different problem. After trying several new business ideas they realized that their customers were not buying into the “new JC Penney.” Their response was a video I can show you. Nearly 1 million views in less than a week plus a lot of earned media and massive amounts of chatter in social media channels. Was all of it positive? No, but this spot wasn’t meant to be a solution, just a start. It was a brand saying, “Hey we tried something, it didn’t work, and we value your opinion as our customers.”

I didn’t graduate from Wharton business school, but I’d wager you could probably make an argument for the changes JC Penney tried to implement over the last 16 months or so. But that ultimately wasn’t the point. JC Penney shoppers have a certain mindset and set of behaviors and whether or not those are rational or irrational is besides the point. Nobody wants to be told, “no, you’re wrong for thinking the way you do.”  So rather than just quietly make the switch, JCP stood up and owned their ‘mistakes’ and addressed their critics and fans in an honest and straightforward manner. When you put out a video that does that, you’re far more likely to get the benefit of the doubt.

It’s not always possible to see every possible interpretation of an ad when you are making it, but putting it through a lens that goes beyond the creative and approaches it from a cultural perspective can have a lot of value.