Not having a social scientist on your team is asking for disaster

Kendall Jenner in maligned Pepsi ad

A quick glance through #tonedeaf on Twitter reveals example after example of celebrities, politicians and brands getting slammed for tasteless decisions that clearly do not consider the larger context – something of a bad optics shame machine. There is even a quite macabre episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror covering the topic.

For better or worse, social media has given a prominent voice to these judgments. Regardless of the size of the brand you manage, embracing cultural awareness on a global level and adding someone with a background in social science – an anthropologist or sociologist – to your digital media team, is absolutely critical and no longer a “nice to have.”

In the past, a tone-deaf campaign (racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, classist, etc.) may have gone unchallenged because the people and cultures being ignored or misrepresented did not have the opportunity or power to challenge what was being published. The emergence of social media combined with an empowered, global cultural climate has increased the opportunity for more people to react and be heard. It’s mass criticism from a grassroots level and a welcome one, if you are prepared for it. If caught unprepared with a tone-deaf campaign, the possibility of backlash going viral can turn into a disaster that does not fade quickly and risks damaging a brand’s reputation forever.

Unless you want your work to risk being out-of-touch, it’s important to note that the “voice of the consumer” and how the campaign will be perceived by other cultures and communities is absolutely not the same thing as your target audience. The recent Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner using protest imagery taken from the Black Lives Matter movement was clearly hoping to bring people together. However, the execution was so off-the-mark, that it has become the go-to example of what being “out of touch” looks like in practice.

It’s not just Pepsi, and it’s definitely not just in the United States. In 2015, Coca Cola made a commercial in Mexico, one of their biggest markets. The ad depicted a group of young, light-skinned youth traveling to a remote village in the southern state of Oaxaca to build a wooden Christmas tree and pass out sodas for the indigenous residents there, who belong to the Mixe community.

The focus of the ad was to unite Spanish speakers with indigenous language speakers through mutual understanding and a love of Coke. Unfortunately, it read to many people as a colonial “swoop in” to “fix” an indigenous community, that does not need or want to be fixed. The promoted hashtag, #AbreTuCorazon (OpenYourHeart), was the perfect vehicle to unite the criticism against the ad. Coke pulled the ad, but not before the Mexican Alliance for Food Health lodged a complaint with Conapred, the Mexican National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination.

Media exists in culture, as culture, and defines our culture. Media and creative agencies are charged with a huge responsibility in harnessing cultural power, but they are nearly powerless against audiences who turn against brands when campaigns and attitudes are not carefully considered from all perspectives. Even if your brand is not particularly global, “all perspectives” still means considering how people may interpret a campaign anywhere in the world.

Most social scientists in the ad world work in market and consumer research or strategy and collect and analyze qualitative, quantitative, demographic and psychographic data for their clients to target campaigns or find out what will appeal to certain people. Similarly, academic anthropologists and sociologists use interviews, research, social theory, and participant observation to find patterns and formulate theories about a culture with the goal of answering basic questions like, “why do people act, speak, think, worship and govern the way they do?” Hiring someone trained as a social scientist to help make informed decisions on your team is the first step in preventing a tone-deaf campaign.

The second step would be allowing that person the latitude to present findings that may counter what the rest of the team believes, and having the team trust them implicitly. If your in-house anthropologist does the research required but is ignored or rejected, in favor of, for example, using a tag line for a beer campaign that reads “The perfect beer for removing ‘No’ from your vocabulary for the night” then you might as well not have an anthropologist on staff at all.

Tapping the discipline of social science is an opportunity for all forms of media to learn more about their audiences, but is especially relevant to advertising. The added day-to-day advantages include not only identifying target audiences of different demographics that may have been overlooked, but also preventing and mitigating social media crisis.

The skills that a social scientist brings to your team opens a dedicated window into building brands that people trust. To be a respected voice in the global community and to understand who audiences are and who our greater community is creates loyalty, both for brands and for agencies alike. It’s long overdue that we in the ad space consider social science as a critical element in creating successful campaigns.

Search The Drum Jobs

Explore the best jobs in Marketing and Media industries
View all open jobs