Without Cultural Fluency, Brands Risk Major Backlash from Ads

Effective ads require cultural fluency, the ability to use culture to efficiently and effectively connect across consumer segments.

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The Challenge

Conventional ad testing poses challenges with legacy norms and sample bias and can exacerbate a cultural disconnect between your brand and the consumers you need to engage for growth.

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The Opportunity

Built on a framework of a deep understanding of the cultural and emotional influences that inform how consumers from diverse backgrounds process ads, CultureRate:Ad helps you connect across culture.

If done incorrectly, advertising can create backlash, which we define as flipping perception from positive to negative, creating a substantial decline in Brand Favorability. According to our CultureRate:Ad research, a startling 20-25% of consumers experience a “flip” in perception after watching just one ad. Our measurement of Backlash, combined with other metrics, can reveal characteristics of your ad that could be harmful to your brand.

This is a common challenge by leading brands. Read on for several examples of consumer backlash resulting from ads that missed the cultural mark.

Jeep | Winter 2021

Washington Post
With the attack on the U.S. Capitol only a month prior to the airing of this ad, emotions were high – fear, and anger, and joy – and all still fresh in the public consciousness. Calls by Jeep for unity and “the middle” were panned as “late” and “tone-deaf.”

Featuring Bruce Springsteen, a working-class hero of days gone by, the somber embrace of nostalgia didn’t seem to be an answer to the challenges of “the road ahead.” While it may have been intended as heartfelt, especially coming from the Boss, the dissonance between tone and message seemed to offer more confusion than reconciliation for Americans across all political persuasions. The ad was eventually pulled, following consumer backlash combined with a Springsteen drunk driving scandal.

Twitch | September 2020

In its attempt to celebrate the Hispanic community during Hispanic Heritage Month, Twitch was heavily criticized for their campaign launching “stereotypical” emotes and spotlighting primarily English-speaking streamers. The streaming community responded with outrage. Within three hours, Twitch apologized saying they “missed the mark” and removed the emotes from the platform.

Peloton | Fall 2019

New York Times
With an ad widely criticized as “sexist and dystopian,” Peloton effectively tanked their stock by nearly $1.5 billion. The ad features a woman who received an exercise bike from her partner as a Christmas gift. She’s inspired to record a video diary of her new exercise routine, which she says, “changed her.” Critics slammed the ad as “offensive” and “damaging” calling attention to the fact that she was thin at the beginning of the ad, and implying her partner was patronizing for telling her to get fitter and lose weight.

Dolce & Gabbana | Winter 2018

Fast Company
In a failed attempt at a gaffe, a D&G ad featured a confused Asian woman attempting to eat spaghetti with chopsticks. Dressed in a red, European style dress the ad subtly suggested that while the woman embraces European fashion, she’s too stupid to truly understand European culture. Chinese consumers took to social media (Weibo), calling the ad offensive, racist and deliberately misrepresenting their country as a third-world nation.

Pepsi | Spring 2017

New York Times
With borrowed imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement, Pepsi failed in its attempt “to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding”. The ad, featuring Kendall Jenner, shows attractive young people smiling, laughing, dancing, and clapping at a public demonstration. Supported by cheers and applause from the crowd, Jenner, a white woman, gives a grinning police officer a can of Pepsi. Social media erupted with criticism accusing Pepsi of “appropriating imagery to sell its product, while minimizing the danger protesters encounter and the frustration they feel.” Within a day of airing the ad, Pepsi immediately pulled it and offered a public apology.

Answering the Challenge

While connecting across diverse consumer cultures certainly comes with challenges, there is good news. You don’t have to risk spending millions on an ad campaign that generates Backlash and causes harm to your brand, and even your company’s stock price. Collage Group’s CultureRate:Ad offers brands a superior way to assess the cultural fluency and resonance of ads. 

CultureRate:Ad measures ad performance using a proprietary metric, the Ad Cultural Fluency Quotient. With a deep oversample of diverse Americans, brand leaders get rich insight into how consumers process ads across race and ethnicity, generation, sexual orientation, gender, and other factors. Brand leaders use CultureRate:Ad and CultureRate:Brand to build cultural fluency, the capability to drive total market growth from inclusive, diverse-led marketing.

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