Pepsi, McDonald's, Dove (twice): can the PR industry stop adland's disastrous campaigns?

The way things are going, 2017 could be remembered in the marcoms world as the year of the catastrophic, facepalm-inducing campaign. What role can PR play in stopping such disasters slipping through the net?

Disastrous ads: Dove (top left, bottom right), McDonald's (top right) and Pepsi (bottom left)
Disastrous ads: Dove (top left, bottom right), McDonald's (top right) and Pepsi (bottom left)

In the latest jaw-dropping campaign misstep this year, Dove was forced to apologise on Twitter after a campaign on Facebook showed a black woman using its body lotion and then becoming white after removing her jumper (see image above).

Ad agency Ogilvy & Mather creates some content on behalf of Dove, while Edelman handles its PR. However, it is unclear if either agency was involved in this Facebook campaign. Both have been contacted. 

Following accusations of racism, the post was removed and Dove tweeted an apology, saying it "missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully".

Speaking about the criticism in The Guardian, the black actor in the campaign said she had felt proud when the content was released.

However, Lola Ogunyemi seemed to acknowledge the comms failings, saying: "While I agree with Dove's response to unequivocally apologise for any offense caused, they could have also defended their creative vision, and their choice to include me, an unequivocally dark-skinned black woman, as a face of their campaign."

She also pointed out that members of the public have reason to mistrust Dove, after a similar backlash in July over a campaign that focussed on opposing opinions about breastfeeding in public. Dove also drew scorn in May after creating limited-edition bottles of its body wash that were designed to represent various body types. Again, it caused widespread offence rather than inspiring body confidence.

Sophie Kostrowski, co-founder at ad agency Live & Wired, told PRWeek that Dove's latest campaign was unlikely to be the last of such controversies.

She says: "The fact is, the advertising world requires us to target broader markets than ever before and yet the lack of diverse thinking is becoming apparent. You know that meme doing the rounds of a very grey, white and male room deciding on bills about women's rights? Yeah, it is very similar."

The year of the campaign crash

The same issues seem to have afflicted Pepsi and McDonald's. In April, Pepsi launched a disastrous campaign with model Kendall Jenner. A month later, McDonald's UK released the 'dead dad' video. As with Pepsi, the campaign was slammed for how insensitively it dealt with a serious issue.

Is it time, therefore, that PR professionals wrestle more control from their advertising counterparts to ensure ill-conceived campaigns don't slip through the net? Or do the bad campaigns reflect a wider problem of brands' lack of authenticity?

Speaking at the PRCA conference last month, WE Communications president, international, Alan VanderMolen, argued that PR pros might struggle to achieve this, expressing concern that the industry was in "deep shit".

He said comms pros were taking a "back seat" to marketers, who are getting "a larger say" when it comes to creating campaigns.

VanderMolen told the conference that in-house departments and agencies were "running towards the budgets, therefore marketers are getting a larger say", adding that the PR industry was "losing its distinctive edge".

In contrast, creative director Mark Perkins, whose agency MHP created the multi award-winning Missing Type campaign, says PRs practitioners do increasingly have a place at the table alongside ad agencies and clients, providing a steer as "brand guardians".

Perkins says: "PR pros have a responsibility to see how a campaign can be construed through multiple lenses, from various audience segments through to the media. That means being culturally, socially and politically aware.

"Some of the most obvious fails have come when brands have gone with a creative that tries to be 'of the moment' or inclusive, but does it in such a tokenistic, clumsy or sanctimonious way that it becomes excruciating, offensive or both."

Perkins says campaigns that achieve the opposite of this - such as the latest Paddy Power TV campaign featuring a man in a wheelchair going to a football match (below) - are the exception rather than the rule, arguing that most advertising is bland and "instantly forgettable".

"That's why, increasingly, PRs are becoming much more than a safeguard at the planning stage. We are being called upon to bring the insight, intuition and experience that comes with working in earned media to craft disruptive campaigns and content that generates positive news, conversation and sentiment for a fraction of the production cost," he says. 

Brands under pressure to engage consumers

Andrew Bloch, co-founder of consumer PR agency Frank, argues that experienced marketing executives should know how to approve effective ad content and determine what is 'good' and 'bad', saying consumers are "fed up" with bad adverts.

He says people are putting up "bullshit buffers" to deflect the thousands of commercial messages they are bombarded with every day.

Bloch says: "Brands are having to work much harder to try and engage people and penetrate these buffers in order to get noticed. It is this desperate effort to grab attention and generate engagement that is putting brands under pressure to come up with something interesting."

As a result, Bloch urges the ad industry to consider a more integrated approach and work more closely with communications experts from across public relations.

He says: "The ad industry needs to work with comms experts who will be able to better reflect the cultural points of view and reactions that their campaigns will generate. Often their strategy is good, but their execution is poor. They need to avoid self-referential broadcasting of messages and not become so encased in their own brand bubble that they fail to remember that people outside may - and often do - have a different point of view."

Less PR, more purpose

Yet while Bloch calls for more integration, Bruce McLachlan, managing director of Fever, suggests brands should, interestingly, consider less PR.

McLachlan says: "I think what we're seeing is the gap between what a brand says, and what it actually does, being laid increasingly bare by the 24/7 scrutiny organisations are now under."

He adds that if brands were faking authenticity, eventually they would be "caught out".

McLachlan says: "It's the reality of the world we now operate in. And while PR is unquestionably more adept at understanding the nuance of public opinion, and having greater PR involvement across all brand comms would nip many issues in the bud, the real answer is not more PR. It's for a brand to build a modern, diverse workforce that better reflects their customer base, and to find a purpose that they can be honest about."

While McLachlan may be calling for brands to take more control, clearly the PR industry could shout louder to ensure disastrous campaigns never see the light of day.

Read next: After Bell Pottinger... do trade bodies have the clout to enforce ethical standards?

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