Brand Strategy Bumble Marketing

​Sorry, not sorry: don’t let dud ads like Bumble’s deter provocateurs

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By Nina Etienne, Global VP marketing

May 14, 2024 | 6 min read

Marketing consultant Nina Etienne hopes brands don’t swear off bold work in fear of running a misfire ad like Bumble and Apple.

Bumble's celibacy ad

We’ve all seen the recent apologies from Bumble and Apple. After some content mishaps, the brands probably correctly apologized. But my concern is the potentially dangerous implications for an industry where many already believe it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Bumble gets humble

Consider Bumble, the popular female-focused dating app, which, one imagines, has a range of eyes approving its campaigns, not to mention comprehensive pre-testing with real and would-be consumers. Despite this, it recently put up billboards at the end of April with messages like ‘You know full well a vow of celibacy is not the answer’ and ‘Thou shall not give up dating and become a nun,’ as it stated in its apology this Monday, the intention was to resonate with a community frustrated by modern dating with a campaign launched to correspond with an app revamp. Said audience was likely even more frustrated after seeing the ad.

Bumble's apology

The viral response leaned out massively. Surprisingly, it seems that women in 2024 don’t appreciate being shamed for their sexual choices. Nor their career choices. Nor do they want to overlook the narratives around sexual violence, sexual coercion, and sexual identity. Bumble might have done better by leaning into a community frustrated by male violence, patriarchal norms, gender bias, LGBTQIA+ prejudice, and societal inertia.

Instead of having to apologize for unintentionally offending its core consumer base, it could have taken a page from ELF Beauty’s book (see recent “change the board game” initiative) and provoked a conversation that leveraged the (still sadly relevant) ’me too’ movement, the trending 4B movement, or the viral man v bear conversation.

Imagine a campaign that upsets the right segment of society and invokes meaningful conversation. Bumble could then have been apologetically unapologetic.

But it wasn’t to be (this time), and so it apologized.

Why so sorry?

We are seeing a lot of brands apologizing. You have to wonder what this means for the future of provocative marketing.

Tone-deaf advertising is to blame. Work that likely ignores the nuances of today’s societal issues and taboos and underestimates the depth of the public’s passion for these topics. One only has to recall Zara’s winter campaign last year–quickly withdrawn due to the parallels drawn with Gaza–to get my drift.

I believe that people really care deeply about diversity, inclusion, politics, climate change, economic inequality – you name it. That they want to do something about it is great news for the world. But we have to admit, it is a big challenge for brands.

In response, we have no choice but to be much more attuned to the world. Marketers need to include the audience in every business and brand decision. There is no room for corporate hubris. Even omnipotent Apple can miss the mark and be forced to apologize. And it did just that last Thursday, stating its regret for issuing a bland advert that primarily offended marketing effectiveness zealots. Apple got more airtime than the death of industry icon Mary Wells Lawrence last week.

Clearly no brand is immune to criticism and backlash. And quite frankly, if you’ve got something worth saying, you may get criticized. In an increasingly polarized world–where nuanced conversation has been lost to binary idealism–you will upset people if you choose to be different in any way. The response to this should not be fear or silence. Just be sure you upset the right audience (which is the one opposed to your loyal customer base).

While the old adage “any press is good press” doesn’t quite sit right in our new world order, there’s a lot we can learn from the provocative advertising of previous decades. The striking and profoundly activist work of the clothing brand Benetton in the 1990s comes to mind.

One of Benetton’s most famous and award-winning campaigns, overseen by then creative director Oliviero Toscani, featured a father holding the lifeless body of his son David Kirby on his hospital deathbed, having lost his battle with Aids. The photo, originally taken by Therese Frare as she was documenting a hospice home, captured Kirby’s family asking Frare to record their final goodbyes. The ad appalled many but started an important conversation. Benetton likely wasn’t sorry.

At its best, advertising can be raw and confronting. It can make us feel uncomfortable, think different, and act differently. When done well, it can influence real change in the world. When done well, it needs no apology.

So, let’s hope that this recent spate of fumbling ads doesn’t smother our provocative nature when the world so desperately needs it—unapologetically.

Next, a slightly different opinion from Burst Your Bubble’s Ian Murray, who thinks marketers should put the brakes on brand purpose... for the sake of democracy.

Brand Strategy Bumble Marketing

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