Bicky Burger has highlighted how much still needs to be done to rid the ad industry of its shock jocks, says Stephan Loerke, chief executive at the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA).
When an ad shows a man hitting a woman, it’s a disgrace. Last week, that's exactly what Belgium fast-food brand Bicky Burger published on Facebook — creative that showed a man punching a woman in the face for handing him the wrong brand of burger.
The comic-book-style image showed the man exclaiming: 'Seriously, a fake Bicky?'.
Though it's since been removed, Bicky's owner, Goodlife Foods, and the agency it works with (the ironically-named Think Tomorrow) all have questions to answer.
How on earth in 2019 did an ad like this get approved and distributed?
Was it done out of ignorance? Our industry is supposed to be in touch with what consumers think. In the age of #MeToo, #SeeHer and #TimeTo it should have been obvious this wasn’t acceptable.
Did the agency and brand do this because their teams weren't diverse enough? Insensitive messages can be signed off when the client and agency teams have no experience, understanding or knowledge of the specific history that would allow them to identify what might offend. However, this is so blatant that it should have been immediately obvious it wasn’t acceptable.
Or did Bicky do this to gain notoriety? In some corners of our industry there's a sad tradition of trying to shock, a practice adopted by brands like United Colours of Benetton and Paddy Power. And yes, when it’s done with thought and a clear purpose behind it, this approach can have merit, but otherwise it’s just… well at best it's just lazy.
Bicky’s credentials suggest this was indeed just another childish stunt.
On International Alzheimer's Day last year, the brand created an ad that read: 'Being able to eat a Bicky every half an hour without feeling guilty #WhenItsEvenAnAdvantage #AlzheimerDay.'
A few months ago, it posted a video of a woman who had apparently gone through several plastic surgeries, alongside the caption: 'She’s already made many bad choices, but meat was not one of them.'
This is a brand with a track record of tastelessness matched only by the flavour of its products (which, by the way, are invariably only consumed on the way home from a boozy night out).
Such behaviour from a brand is unlikely to improve public perception of advertising executives. A recent survey by Ipsos Mori found that ad executives were the least trusted profession among British adults, behind even politicians and estate agents.
What’s so disappointing is that it’s happened at a time when the ad industry as a whole is working hard to eliminate lazy stereotypes.
We have become conscious as marketers of the role that we can play to reflect the full picture of society and improve aspirations, particularly among groups that are disadvantaged.
The outcry over #MeToo has manifested itself in our industry in the shape of Unstereotype Alliance (of which the WFA is a founding member), as well as initiatives like #TimeTo in the UK and #SeeHer in the US. Encouragingly, other schemes have been picked up in countries as far and wide as South Africa, Brazil and Turkey, showing it's truly a global priority for the industry.
Last week our Latin America members agreed to develop local guidelines and actions designed to encourage a reduction in stereotyping across the region.
Often the countries that are most keen to develop unstereotype guidance are those with a tradition of macho culture. But Bicky, which is owned by a company from the liberal Netherlands, certainly doesn’t have that heritage.
What this incident shows is that we still have a long way to go as a society and as an industry. Recent research from UN Women has found that one in four men think it’s okay to hit their spouse. It goes without saying that no brand should seek to encourage such behaviour.
What we’ve learned from Bicky is that for all the progress that’s being made, we still have a long way to go. The advertising industry is predicated on the premise that we can influence and impact consumer behaviour on the basis of consumer insight and understanding.
But we also have a role to play in reflecting society, as it is and also how it should be.
When we let Mad Men culture pollute our thinking then we do a disservice to both our brands and to the people we seek to serve.
Stephan Loerke is chief executive at the WFA. He tweets @Stephan_Lo