Why Violators Should Thank Britain's Gender Police

Volkswagen, Philadelphia Cream Cheese Get Wake-up Call

Aug 29, 2019

SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Two companies busted by Britain's gender stereotype police could complain about government overreach. But a marketing professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business says violators of new advertising standards should thank the regulators instead for a wake-up call.

"Whether or not regulators in these cases went too far, the essential takeaway for brands is that they need to read the tea leaves to avoid going against the grain of culture in an era of social correctness,” says Maryland Smith marketing professor Henry C. Boyd III.

Philadelphia Cream Cheese had its ad yanked off the air following an apparent poke at male parenting. "Let’s not tell mum," an absent-minded dad says after placing his child on a restaurant conveyor belt. Regulators also pulled a Volkswagen ad, which depicts a man and woman in a tent on a cliff face, two male astronauts, a male para-athlete and a woman seated on a bench next to a baby stroller. "When we learn to adapt, we can achieve anything," the tagline reads.

"Product development and subsequent marketing campaigns need vetting committees," Boyd says. "This means getting a read on what’s going on in the general public and in niche circles to make sure we’re in the right spaces and not offending certain groups."

He says companies that fail to consider their messaging from multiple perspectives risk blowback. "We may not like it," he says. "We may feel society has gone too far. But this is our new reality if we want to protect our brands and generate revenue."

Boyd says determining "the grain of culture" is complicated, so vetting teams should reflect the diversity of consumers at large.

Recently on Wharton Business Radio, he explained how such a strategy could have spared Nike from backlash in July, when it recalled its Betsy Ross flag edition Air Max sneakers.

"I find it fascinating that Nike could’ve used the contemporary American flag," Boyd says. "That would’ve been safe ground. At some point the designers sat down and agreed that it would be kind of cool to go back to the original, first flag. And no one weighed in with historical context as to what that flag symbolizes."

Nike pulled the sneakers from store shelves after activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a Nike brand ambassador, suggested that some consumers would associate the brand with slavery and that the Betsy Ross flag has been appropriated by extremist groups.

"Minus a formula to pinpoint the cost of getting it wrong," Boyd says, "the best bet is to err on the side of progressiveness."

He points back to Nike and its stand for racial justice. "Even with the controversy, with some backlash from conservative circles, look at how well they’ve done in the last couple years. Revenue to the tune of $39 billion and stocks up about 7 percent over this past year with Kaepernick as a brand ambassador. So they are doing the right things, even though there are other groups out there saying they’ve gone too far, as far as political correctness is concerned."

He says diversity and inclusion are here to stay in the new era of brand awareness. "Companies have to think in terms of moving forward," he says. "They must continuously ask themselves, 'Do we want to be on the wrong side of history?'"

Audio: Hank Boyd on Wharton Business Radio (1:15)

About the Expert(s)

Henry C. Boyd is a Clinical Professor in the Marketing Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is also a managing director and principal at Ombudsman LLC, a diversified consultancy. He is licensed to practice law in Maryland, Wisconsin, and the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin.

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