Cultural Awareness in Marketing Revisited
Last June, Villing & Company president, Thom Villing, wrote a piece entitled “Cultural Awareness in Marketing” dealing with the challenges of creating culturally sensitive messages. Before you continue any further, I encourage you to go read that piece for context on the rest of this post.
I wanted to revisit this discussion after seeing an article in Adweek about a Thai brand that was forced to apologize for a recent ad that said “You just need to be white to win.” The ad was for a skin-whitening product and featured a woman in blackface.
The company, Seoul Secret, has since pulled the ad and issued an apology on Facebook saying that they did not intend to convey any racist messages.
Now, I have never been to Thailand, and I do not pretend to have an intimate understanding of Thai culture. According to the article in Adweek that I cited above, “a pale complexion is associated with a higher social status” in Thailand.
You can decide for yourself by viewing the ad, but from my cultural perspective it is quite offensive. I can’t even imagine what a person of another race might feel when watching it.
However, I don’t just want to spend time bashing this company for what was obviously a poor choice in messaging. They’ve since apologized, and I will forego any further criticism. The reason I bring this up at all, is for a larger discussion on cultural awareness.
In this day and age, a social media post in one country can be seen instantly by someone across the globe. It’s one thing to try to create messages that are sensitive to the cultures that immediately surround you, it’s something entirely different to attempt to create messages that are sensitive to a culture in another hemisphere. So how does one navigate that?
I think the reason this ad was so revolting was that it so obviously degraded other human beings. No matter what culture you come from, that is a universal no-no. As opposed to trying to understand the implications your messaging may have on every culture across the globe, just start off by trying to have general empathy for human beings.
And yes, sometimes mistakes do happen. You might create a message with the best intentions and come to find out that it is somehow culturally insensitive. If that is truly the case, again, focus on basic human decency and apologize. That is where good public relations strategy and crisis communication come into play.
Bottom line – just listen to your mother. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
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