Opinion

Trial by social media has created a climate of fear in advertising

From Kendall Jenner to Dove, brands and creatives today are walking a thin line over what can be construed as offensive by the social media masses, writes The Glitch's Pooja Jauhari

Offence is a tricky word among today’s generation, and is, more often than not, grossly misused. For brands advertising in the age of social media, it has become a very interesting, but worrying, focal point in our lives.

First, let’s be honest: advertising for the longest time has enjoyed the ability to get away with many insensitive campaigns under the guise of telling a real-world truth. Women were homemakers, so naturally we sold them kitchen items. Men were the breadwinners, so were treated as the kings of the house. Meanwhile, anybody outside the norm was dubbed an outcast or a ‘rebel’.

The clichés and political incorrectness were everywhere and the term ‘sex sells’ was at its peak. And every once in awhile, you had the odd ad which went beyond the edge and had to deal with the backlash, but again the numbers were minimal.

Now, fast forward to today and social media has placed brands and creative agencies under an unprecedented level of scrutiny. Now we are held to account for just about anything we put out there – trial by social media if you will.

In the cases of Kendall Jenner’s now-infamous Pepsi ad, to this decidedly un-PC billboard by Jack & Jones in India, some of the this outrage was deserved.

However, so often what the social audience regards as offensive is at best simply an overreaction. And that’s what makes the market truly fraught today. Where is the line between offensive and overreacting drawn?

In all honesty, all this has really done is to make creatives operate from a place of fear. The creative  process is now starting from: “Who could be offended by this?”. It’s not that advertising doesn’t need scrutiny and accountability, but what happened to the ability to take a joke?

Meanwhile, the recent scandal regarding Dove’s Facebook post was completely removed from its original context. I suspect the majority of those passing judgement on the now-viral screenshot did not see the full version of the creative. If they had, they would have seen the looping GIF of three women – and seven on TV – all with different skin tones. The ad was about showing how Dove is right for all types of skin.

The completed version was not racist, and it was certainly not about a dark-skinned girl becoming white after using their product. But by the time the complete version was out the damage was already done. The social media mob yet again came out en-masse to publicly condemn Dove, and within hours the Unilever brand found itself issuing a grovelling apology.

So, where do we go from here? Do we always play safe and never break barriers or do we take a stand and deal with the repercussions?

For me as a creative, I believe we must never be afraid to push the boundaries; we should never shy away from making people think differently, while at the same time holding ourselves to high standards. We must never forget that what we do is for a brand and we need to always do what is best to build and grow the values and utility of the brand to its consumer.

As long as we do that with positivity and cultural relevance the conversation can never go too sour. The honest truth is that there will always be naysayers – no matter how careful you are. That’s the world we live in today. But, here’s to withstanding the trolls and really celebrating people while still challenging the norm.

Pooja Jauhari is the chief executive officer of Indian independent agency The Glitch

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