Ethics in Marketing: Applying Political Correctness in Marketing

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Ethics in Marketing: Applying Political Correctness in Marketing

2018 is the year of division. Whether it’s political, religious, scientific or something silly like Laurel or Yanny, almost everything is up for debate. Even the World Cup, normally a cultural melting pot where people and countries can put aside their differences for the love of the game isn’t free of its controversies, not the least of it is due to the issues surrounding the host nation itself. Everything is a landmine these days, even a questionable styling choice could trigger thinkpieces across the internet.

As an apolitical company, how do you deal with this? Should you take a backseat and play Switzerland even at the risk of being seen as a sign of cowardice? Or should you draw a line somewhere and commit fully to a position even though you risk alienating half of the population? Content marketing has always been a tricky subject but it’s safe to say that it has never been as complex as it is now, where the middle ground is as small as the Vatican and that polarization is as extreme as it ever was.

Marketing in the age of political correctness

Political correctness as a term refers to the practice of avoiding the use of certain language or behavior that is offensive to a section of the population that is disadvantaged or discriminated in some ways. The practice itself isn’t a bad one but just as how the right amount of fire is good for grilling steaks, too much of them can burn down an entire forest. Everything has to be in moderation.

There’s this American television show titled Speechless which portrays the life of a kid with cerebral palsy and the rest of his family as he moves to a new school. Very early on the show, even before anyone on his new school has met him, they decided that they want him to be student body president. That’s not being politically correct, that’s tokenism. Being politically correct is about accommodating the needs of the disadvantaged, not putting them in a pedestal.

On the other extreme end of the spectrum, there’s no avoiding the elephant in the room that is the current president of the United States. No matter where your opinions lie on him, Donald Trump is an interesting case in how far a brand could go while being politically incorrect. In alienating at least 50% of the population of the United States, he developed a loyal following of the other 50%, illustrating just how polarized the world can be when it comes to this.

The other issue is that due to the widespread practice of political correctness, there’s a backlash against anyone employing this practice, with derogatory terms like thought police and social justice warriors (SJW) being applied to those entities. The most notable example being the argument that the latest Star Wars film, 2017’s The Last Jedi is ruined by SJW propaganda while its most ardent fans lavishes the film for the exact same reason. Again, deeply polarizing.

So, which direction to go for?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as long as you do it right. If you want to stay above the fray for example, you have to at least acknowledge that there is indeed a huge divide in the world right now even though you’re not choosing sides. My favorite is this Heineken ad, ‘Worlds Apart’, which instead of disparaging each side of the divide, it imagines a place where it is possible for each side to bridge that particular divide over a bottle of beer.

Other than its clever structure, that ad is also excellent for making the representatives the focus of the ad instead of the brand itself. It meshes storytelling with a form of political, let’s say awareness about hot-button issues like feminism, climate change and gender identities and Heineken did it explicitly. The ad stands in contrast with the much-ridiculed Pepsi ad where the brand vaguely references those same issues while saying absolutely nothing at all and putting a celebrity, specifically Kendall Jenner in the center.

If you want to throw your hat with one side of the argument then by all means, do so, but always do it with conviction. One example I’m particularly fond of is the ad for Axe body spray. I don’t know if anyone has ever noticed but care products, for both men and women, always feature society’s ideal examples of either gender. For women, it’s the Victoria’s Secret type while for men; it’s the Abercrombie & Fitch types.

With women, we’ve seen more and more ads with body positivity messages in recent years, which makes sense given society’s unrealistic beauty standards have been applied more to women but men do suffer from similar problems of toxic masculinity. Axe has been one of the few exceptions to this case with their ads frequently featuring scrawny types that you’d never see in an Avengers film but they’ve never explicitly referred to this practice until last year when they launched their ‘Is it ok for guys’ campaign.

The ad uses data from what actual real-life men were searching for on Google. It makes perfect sense actually, men are also subject to certain standards from society and one of them is to not be vulnerable so Google became the only avenue in which they could ask these questions, ranging from wearing the color pink, to not like sports and to experiment with other men. It is Axe’s way of telling men that it is okay for them to be like this, that to not conform to society’s outdated conventional views is perfectly okay.

Walking on a tightrope of political correctness

You’re not going to appeal to everybody. Because of the us vs them mentality that is prevalent these days, even if you choose to stay above the fray, those holding an overtly black-and-white views are going to shun you for not choosing a position. If you go down the politically correct approach, you can safely expect a backlash is going to be waiting for you in the pipeline.

Here’s a cautionary tale. The coffee chain Starbucks, deciding to wade in the refugee and immigrant debate, made a commitment to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide. It is admittedly, a very admirable goal but the world isn’t totally on board with that sentiment and as a result, consumer perception of the brand fell by two-thirds between January and March last year. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide which direction to go with but the point stays the same; you’re not going to make friends with everyone.