The DNA analysis service Ancestry was top of mind for many of in the US late last week, earning a top trending spot on Twitter and headlines galore—but all for the wrong reasons.
The brand’s new campaign, created in partnership with ad agency Anomaly, featured a video that depicted a fictional relationship between a white man and a black woman in the 1800s.
"Abigail," he says, producing a ring. "We can escape to the north."
It cuts off and the new Ancestry slogan appears: "Without you, the story stops here."
Social media erupted. People took issue with the brand’s attempt to romanticise a painful time in American history.
And so the generic and predictable chain of events ensued: anger, brand apology, ads erased.
I’m not here to debate the controversy. A 28-year-old white male from one of the least diverse parts of England with little knowledge of America's slavery is not the right person to wade in on the Confederacy and black lives. Ever.
I’m here to argue how this chain of events underscores a deep-rooted lack of transparency and a cry for diversity brands can no longer afford to be associated with.
One of about 1,000 awful things about this commercial is it ignores the fact that for black Americans - myself included - and for others in the diaspora, DNA and documentary ancestry information is as painful and traumatic as it is illuminating. These are not love stories. https://t.co/tuTpHwmnGk— Kimberly Atkins (@KimberlyEAtkins) April 18, 2019
Ancestry has gagged Anomaly. Any questions about this spot have to be redirected to the brand. Repeated requests to speak with Ancestry’s marketing head have been ignored.
So here’s the most information I can get out of Ancestry—a statement it released following the issue: "Ancestry is committed to telling important stories from history. This ad was intended to represent one of those stories. We very much appreciate the feedback we have received and apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused. We are in the process of pulling the ad from television and have removed it from YouTube."
Although, fine is not good enough. Not anymore.
What really happened here? What went so wrong during the creative process? Was the pool of people working on this ad diverse enough to have foreseen the controversy it sparked (the credits suggest not)? Do the individuals responsible for this content stand by their decision with hindsight?
Questions which haven’t been answered, and should be—from the horse’s mouth.
Ancestry has nothing to gain but transparency. The shattered remains of this spot can be used as building blocks for trust. But, like so many brands, it won’t take advantage of this opportunity out of some weird fear I get angry trying to understand.
I speak as a consumer when I say that this opaqueness has immediately made Ancestry redundant to my life (hey, 23andMe).
Above all, the lack of explanation leads us to believe it was a weakness in diversity that broke Anomaly’s first campaign for the brand.
An industry recruiter told Campaign US: "I would be really curious to see the ethnic composition of the people who worked on the ad and approved the ad.
"In theory, if it was not a very diverse team, it would make for another very good example of why you need diversity to represent all points of view and prevent gaffes like that happening."
Ancestry: I urge you to share—in detail—this failure with the world, and learn from your mistakes, like the humans you’re trying to reach.
TL;DR: Own your shit to sell your shit.