In the last couple weeks before the holidays, we're taking a look back at 2017—listicle style. Today, we kick things off with a fan favourite: the five biggest brand/media missteps of the year.
1. They what? Watsons Malaysia & ‘blackface’
Here’s a thing that shouldn’t have to be said anymore: ‘blackface’ is not acceptable. Following on from this: don’t use ‘blackface’ and then have it disappear in favour of fair skin to illustrate an improvement, or positive consequence.
Apparently Watsons Malaysia didn’t get the memo, and so the public were aghast to be presented with a Hari Raya advert featuring a woman in blackface, which she washes off to reveal her fair skin. Cue justified internet bedlam, with Watsons slammed for being racist, sexist, distasteful, derogatory and other colourful synonyms. So Watsons obviously owned up and profusely apologised right? Shockingly, no! Terrible PR practice continues to exist. The brand pulled the advert, fine, but then issued the nauseating, cowardly 'non-apology apology', putting the blame on those who were offended. An actual apology followed, but too little too late.
2. Nikon and the mystery of the invisible women
You can’t really miss them; they are 50% of the world’s humans. They do all the things men do, just as well or better. That includes really anything—advertising, marketing, running, leading, making, and certainly photography. So why didn’t Nikon reckon there were any decent women photographers, across the whole globe?
Enter exhibit A, Nikon’s maddening and saddening prehistoric campaign for some new camera that we won’t mention because the brand doesn’t deserve the free media. The struggling camera company picked 32 ambassadors for it, and all were men. Yep, I did just see you check the calendar, and yes, it is 2017. Not the year 17, as Nikon seem to think. Exhibit B: Nikon’s pathetic response, in which they actually tried to mount a defence blaming female photographers that were invited but didn’t come. We’re not sure what that means either. For all that we do our best as Campaign to be informative and build a community for innovative and progressive ideas in the media and communications industries, and with our year-long focus on gender diversity, it seems some people still think the earth is flat. [Actually, lots of people do think that, but that's another story entirely. -Ed.]
3. Remember when KFC exploited poor Filipinos?
Whatever I write here is almost redundant, as there isn’t a better takedown of this opportunistic piece of tone-deaf self-love than that written by my colleague when we first came across this bizarre ad. Suffice to say, KFC decided the best way to showcase the plight of a poor village in the Philippines that is constantly flooded, is to… turn up with fried chicken. In a wee branded boat.
For a brand that has had many enjoyable advertising hits—chicken-scented sun lotion and edible nail polish, for example—this was a bad departure. Sure, people like fried chicken, but seriously? Showing up in your KFC boat with chicken buckets, when these people more likely need lasting help in their lives, like fresh water and better infrastructure? The whole premise is so stupendously exploitative and self-aggrandising that you wonder how the idea ever made it out of the meeting room, let alone onto video. In a world where we’re told consumers are highly cynical and vicious in their calling out of inauthentic brands, it seems someone inverted the brief on this one.
4. The one where YouTube violated brand safety
The crisis that blew open the digital can of advertising worms. Or should we say pythons. The reaction to news of brand ads on YouTube being placed next to, and therefore inadvertently funding, inappropriate and extremist videos, was ferocious. Regardless of how quickly Google reacted, the salacious headlines and global condemnation were hugely damaging. Advertisers around the world pulled their money from YouTube, governments got involved and the company is still fighting the fire today, although it is not as fierce as when the news broke in March. Some say the silver lining is that the scandal provoked a desperately needed conversation about cleaning up the digital ad industry more broadly, and much action has been taken since.
5. United Airlines, a doctor, and assault
Airlines are the frontline of customer service. There are people employed to literally look after you while you try to get comfortable in a ramrod straight seat inside a gloomy metal tube 35,000 feet in the sky. So obviously when a passenger has an issue, you get the police to forcibly drag him out along the floor, while people capture it on their smartphones.
Even an American airline, renowned for their almost palpable disgust for the people who pay to fly with them, wouldn’t do that? Oh wait. We forgot about United, and poor Vietnamese-American doctor David Dao. A horror to watch from anywhere in the world, this disgraceful act caused uproar in China (after Dao was mistakenly labelled Chinese on state TV) and Japan (where the general antipathy toward United was vindicated). We could go chapter and verse on United’s abysmal PR failure in response, with CEO Oscar Munoz’s non-apology followed by a quick sort-of apology, followed by a settlement with Dao. But just watch the video again, and if you still don’t know why United is on this list, you need a new job.