Who Even Approved These Offensive Advertisements?

What’s The Big Deal?
Whether it’s Audi’s sexist ad or Singapore’s very own brownface blunder, there has been much furore over various advertisements in recent years. Our recently conducted online poll has similarly revealed that more than ¾ of our respondents (out of 116) have seen discriminatory or offensive advertisements before. We’re also witnessing many businesses revoke their controversial branding decisions, sometimes even before any public backlash hits them. As much as we would like to attribute their seeming civic consciousness to a deeper understanding of stereotypes and microaggressions, it’s also thanks to a heightened fear of being called out, cancelled and boycotted— just as what had happened with Facebook. There’s almost no excuse for advertisers to claim ignorance in this information age, even when it’s a case of the West propagating Eastern stereotypes and vice versa. Or are we simply living in an age where consumers are just too caught-up in their own self-righteous rhetoric? Are there any tangible consequences to such ads?
Distasteful Advertisements, Disgruntled Netizens
To highlight the effectiveness of their product, Chinese laundry detergent brand Qiaobi had posted a video of a Chinese woman forcing a Black man into a washing machine, only to pull out a fair-skinned Asian man at the end of the washing process with a grin on her face. The shockingly racist nature of the ad was picked up by netizens around the world, who left various heated comments online, with one incredulous user stating: “My lord. Do Chinese marketing people not have any racial education?
“We meant nothing but to promote the product, and we had never thought about the issue of racism,” a spokesman for Leishang cosmetics company, producer of the detergent, told China’s Global Times. “The foreign media might be too sensitive about the ad.” (Although this was quickly followed up by a full apology.) You don’t have to look too far to tell that his nonchalant response is reflective of the Chinese masses’ attitude towards the insensitive advertisement. Racial blindness towards Black people is common, where there is close to zero African immigration. A lack of exposure to another culture has rendered them incapable of recognising discriminatory subtexts. In general, racial sensitivity is especially difficult to achieve in Asia, especially when beauty standards are conflated with defining racial markers such as skin colour. In many Asian regions, “whiteness has been portrayed as something higher on the power hierarchy,” Yiu-tung Suen, an assistant professor of gender studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong has said. For the longest time, cosmetics brands have been profiting off creams and lotions which promise a lighter skin tone. Hence, it’s not too surprising that Chinese citizens have viewed the ad as nothing beyond comic relief. But even in a diverse society such as Singapore, where various parties were involved in a brownface ad for an e-payment service, the lapse in judgment was not picked up on by the local statutory board which regulates and approves advertisements. The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) has stated: While the ad did not breach the Internet Code of Practice, it was done in poor taste and had caused offence to minority communities.” This too highlights the need to revise the standards on prohibited materials that IMDA has always upheld. Along with such racially charged ads are also body-shaming ads that promote unrealistic beauty standards, and sexist ads that bring us back to the good ol’ days where women are solely valued for their attractiveness or homemaking skills. Our poll corroborates this— the top 3 discriminatory ads that people see are related to issues of racism, lookism and sexism.
When Ideals Turn Into Discrimination
Other than ruffling feathers, what sort of detrimental consequences do these ads leave, especially on impressionable young minds? In 2002, 25 studies revealed that girls under the age of 19 feel significantly worse about their bodies after viewing images of slim women in mainstream media. Another recent meta-analysis of 25 studies found that media images are linked to body dissatisfaction, lower self-esteem, and excessive exercising in men. Advertising has gone beyond selling a product— it’s now pushing a certain type of lifestyle. Teenagers should also exercise discretion – and be educated on – the perils of falling prey to ads which idealise a certain body type, appearance or lifestyle. But let’s step into the shoes of marketers for a hot minute. Is there any other way for them to push their products without using such inherently discriminatory stereotypes to appeal to people’s ideals? Airbrushed photos of glamorous models have proven to be effective in catching people’s attention and portraying their brands and selling their products. Would brands risk this tried and tested approach for a more inclusive representation? One such brand who has strived to do so is Dove. Their beauty campaigns which feature women with curvy bodies and freckled cheeks—and they have been wildly successful thus far, enjoying a 700% increase in sales.
Once Bitten, Twice Shy
Just how forgiving are consumers when brands make such missteps? This survey reveals that it really depends on who you are and where you live: The cancel culture behaviour is most prominent amongst the younger generations, with 88% of Gen Z saying they were more likely to act negatively towards a brand they disagreed with. Alison DaSilva, the Managing Director of Purpose & Impact at Zeno Group, has observed: “Gen Z’s number one ambition is to build a better world through the strength of collective action. Those brands that do not put authentic and actionable purpose at their core risk losing one of the most influential youth generations on the planet”. Such an inclination is also stronger in Asian countries (China, 92%; Malaysia, 91%; Singapore, 89%). In the West (United States, Canada, France), consumers were slightly more forgiving of brands when they are disappointed—a surprising result considering the masses’ markedly liberal stance on socio-political issues. Since a strict adherence to societal norms in Asian societies is highly valued, this perhaps stems from the characteristically Eastern mode of punitive justice—public shaming culminating in the form of a collective boycott. What kind of steps do the respondents of our poll think companies should take for them to consider supporting such brands again? 50.9% answered ‘No’ when asked if they would consider buying products/services from a brand which has put out insensitive/discriminatory advertisements. Clearly, it’s not that easy to bounce back from such disgraceful ads. Nevertheless, 78.4% has stated that the best response is to ‘Make known publicly the steps that they will take to stem out discriminatory practices in the future’, followed by a retraction of the offensive advertisement and a public apology.
The Final Act
The major public backlash against such ads highlight the need for brands to establish a non-discriminatory position which they can commit to in their advertisements and publicity efforts. Ideally, their staff across the board should also be educated on their established position before communicating a committed brand value, rather than being a show-piece. Part of the problem could also stem from the lack of diversity at upper management levels in the industry, fostering a fatal groupthink mentality that may have led to such faux pas. To counteract this, companies like HP and General Mills have taken action to hire a more diverse pool of marketers. In 2016, HP’s then chief marketer, Antonio Lucio sent letters to his five agencies demanding they “radically improve the percentage of women and people of colour in leadership roles”. He has also shared that of the 1,000 marketers that the multinational hardware company employs, 55% are women, and at manager level the female contingent stands at 43%. Whether brands are revamping their image to make a genuine stand against discrimination or to save themselves from controversy, it’s a step in the right direction towards a more gracious and culturally sensitive society.
Ong Hui Wen

About the author

Ong Hui Wen​


From creative content to technical pieces, I craft compelling copy based on a clear understanding of audience needs to surpass content marketing business KPIs.