A lot of news sources have already unpacked and dissected the many missteps in the recent Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad. It was live for all of one day, but it will live on in brand infamy forever. Here are a few of the sources covering the cringe-worthy effort, if you want to dig deeper into this example:

The official Nivea page on Facebook is putting out ‘pro skin whitening’ adverts with the slogan ‘white is purity’ (Source: Facebook)

Pepsi is clearly not the only brand to take this kind of wrong turn in their ads or other communications. A few recent examples include Match.com’s misguided characterization of red hair, freckles, or eye color as imperfections, as well as Nivea’s portrayal of “White is Purity” that earned immediate online fury. Most recently, United Airlines compounded their operational, planning and basic humanity missteps with a decidedly tone-deaf CEO communication that instead of calming the public outcry further fueled it.

The Internet is poised to identify, amplify and vilify brands that make these kinds of mistakes. Meanwhile consumers marvel at how, in this day and age, brand and creative strategists make the poor decisions that pass the many layers of consideration and reviews of these expensive efforts. It’s a fair question.

So, how can a brand avoid being tone deaf?

The Brief

If your ad vision and subsequent brief’s objective is to tune into recent global trends or to otherwise tack onto complex societal issues, go back to the drawing board. You are not qualified to establish world peace, nor is it your brand mission. You can brag a bit about a sincere and established philanthropic effort or partnership, but that right is only earned after you have had a real world impact. Better yet, promote the effort, rather than the brand, and let the public laud you indirectly. The halo effect is very flattering.

If you have doubts about an approach or messaging platform under consideration, now is the time to trust your gut and voice those doubts. Spend some time and resources testing consumer reaction to get a direct read on how your vision could be perceived.

The Team

Cultural misappropriation stems directly from a failure in the ad industry to welcome and promote cultural diversity. Look around the table and see who has a voice. Make sure your company is doing what it can to encourage all talents and perspectives at every level in the organization. You will be smarter and safer for it.

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