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Marketing in the twenty tens

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For over a decade, my dad was the VP of Marketing at Renault Turkey. While car launches and car showroom openings did not mean much to me, what felt like all Christmases come at once were the days he would bring home stacks of VHS tapes with Renault adverts from France, the home of Groupe Renault.

While the language was all French to me, as a child, I was interested in what most children are interested in: a quick succession of exciting and intriguing images that hold you captive while deploying enough subliminals to make the product more attractive. Of course I was not the target audience, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the beauty of stylish imagery of flashy cars (Well, yes, when you are nine years old, even the poxy Renault 5 or the boxy Renault 9 look flashy!), scenic routes and sexy women…

Women, you might wonder… What my nine year old brain in the ‘80s didn’t even question I found myself mortified by when a couple of weeks ago I stumbled on a YouTube playlist of ‘80s Renault ads. By today’s #metoo standards, it is cringe worthy footage. Camera panning across a woman’s curves juxtaposed with the car’s curves, not so subtly comparing the shape of the car to the shape of a woman, generous use of red lippy, red stiletto heels, some cringe-inducing phallic imagery. Viewed through our enlightened eyes, the ads now seem like a series of soft porn.

My first reaction was to cringe at how I could have ever enjoyed such barely veiled objectification of women. Then I remembered two things: 1. I was only nine, 2. It was the ‘80s, the decade when the adverts featuring half naked women selling products for men were the norm, also the decade heralding the dawn of the power suit and shoulder pads, when women in films, like undercover superheroes, could seemingly whip out and put on their suit and can emit an air of (albeit limited) power, yet still be objectified by men.

It is fascinating how our perceptions of what is acceptable or not have changed over the last three decades when it comes to race, sex and gender. Blacking up, homophobic slurs, objectification of women make the modern day audience uncomfortable if not incandescent. And with social media channels at our finger tips we are swift to ensure the offending party gets publicly shamed.

Yet, there still seems to be a worrying trend amongst some of the biggest conglomerates when it comes to their questionable marketing choices. This week, Heineken was the last in a long chain to fall foul of the masses with its ‘Lighter is better commercial’. In the 30-second clip, a bartender is seen sliding a bottle of the beer past a number of black people before it reaches a light-skinned woman. Moments later, the tagline “sometimes, lighter is better” appears on screen.

‘Lighter is better’ might have worked at the turn of the previous century, even in the era pre Civil Rights, at a push in the ‘90s when it was only the most progressive amongst us who questioned the use of light-skinned women with big behinds as objects of desire in hip hop videos that most of us accepted as the norm. Anybody in their right mind who wouldn’t think twice about serving this tagline to a 2018 audience should be immediately dismissed. Unless of course they are in on a new marketing ploy.

As Heineken joins a long line up of offenders such as Pepsi, Nivea, Dove, H&M, each with their own ill-advised commercials, one can’t help but wonder if there are more sinister decisions at work. Considering most of the offenders are multi-national, multi-billion conglomerates, it would be naïve to think such decisions are merely ill-advised or innocent. It seems to be as if big brands have finally woken up to the big buck potential of the black buyer; only they have got out of the wrong side of bed because they’d rather court controversy rather than court this new market segment.

One would imagine a marketing executive coyly suggest, “Let’s have Kendall Jenner from a #BlackLivesMatter march!” or “Let’s show the beer slide past dark skinned people all the way to the light skinned woman!” or “Let’s put a black boy in a hoodie that references monkeys and jungles!” These are just a few examples in a long line of equally disgraceful ones: Let’s have Ashton Kutcher in black face (Pop Chips), let’s tell black people to re-civilise themselves (Nivea), let’s have Mary j Blige eat chicken while making a flippant statement about black people and chicken (Burger King), let’s have a white woman physically attack a black woman (Sony)…

Other team members and senior management chime in with plaudits and off they go spending millions on a campaign most likely to be pulled within 24-hours, followed hastily with an apology that reads along the lines of “We apologise to all we’ve offended. This was disgraceful. We should have known better.”

My guess is most of the household brands and their mostly Caucasian, mostly overpaid marketing teams do know better and yet choose to err deliberately, as these days black Twitter is more vocal than ever and social media mileage goes further than any other marketing channel: what better way to combine the two then stir the ire of black folk and let them get your ad viral for you? After all, give it 24 hours and issue an apology assuring the public you’ve learned from the mistake. Brand name trended, ad gone viral, fat cheques and bonuses guaranteed. What is today’s Twitter feed after all but tomorrow’s archive?

And the man calling for the boycott of your beer? Don’t you worry, he will be posing in the VIP lounge of a fashion week sponsored by you in a few months photographed with a bottle of your finest in his hand.


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