How Problematic Ads Get Approved (And Ways We Can Prevent Them)

Ads Get Approved

The New York branch of global advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather has a yearly event called “You Matter Day.” On this day, work stops and employees indulge in a series of personal-interest classes hosted at the office—intro to graffiti art, 3D printing, sushi making, and so on.

I experienced just one “You Matter Day” during my time at Ogilvy, when I was a strategist on the IKEA account. A few days earlier, our team released a national commercial we’d worked on for months. The public deemed it racist, and IKEA decided to immediately pull it from air. Thus on “You Matter Day,” I mattered for a greater purpose: scrubbing the ad’s existence from the internet.

IKEA and Ogilvy are both large corporations filled with many smart people. From the first creative briefs to production of the final commercial, we went through rounds of focus groups, concept testing, collaborative meetings, and edits. In deciding to pull the problematic ad, IKEA’s head of U.S. marketing voiced that if a single person could feel offended by the commercial, that was one too many. I agreed with her stance and personally felt the ad was offensive. How did I, or anyone else on the Ogilvy or IKEA teams, fail to prevent this?

From experience, the answer lies in the political hierarchy and siloed nature of agency life. I was a strategic planner on the IKEA account, teamed up with a senior planner and strategy director. The three of us formed one-third of the IKEA account at Ogilvy, alongside five dedicated members of account management and three art directors and copywriters in the creative department. Much like the U.S. government, our three branches were meant to check and balance each other. Much like the U.S. government, that never happened.

Breaking bureaucracy

Ogilvy and IKEA often clashed on ideas and executions. Since the client pays the bills, this meant our team had to figure out where we went wrong. Strategy would blame creative for going off-brief. Creative would blame strategy for writing a bad brief that all but forced them to ad-lib. The senior members of each Ogilvy department were engaged in a constant race to pass the buck, with junior members caught in the crosshairs and nodding along when called upon.

When an agency pitches a client to make a national ad campaign, there is no guarantee the client will approve any of the creative concepts. Fortunately, IKEA bought one of our ideas. It focused on the kitchen and the changing archetype of the American family. Gone are the cookie-cutter days of mom, dad, two kids, and a dog. Modern families more closely resemble the TV show—an amalgam of cousins, friends, and neighbors sitting around the table as one unit.

Our commercial played on this theme, with a mom calling upstairs for everyone to come down for dinner. Only instead of two or three names, she calls down a dozen people—her kids, her kids’ friends, and other members of their extended family. The script was funny; bodies pile out of bedrooms like clowns stuffed in a tiny car. The concept performed well in focus groups, so we moved to filming and production, some of the final steps before an ad goes to air.

In casting the commercial, Ogilvy chose a middle-aged Latina woman to play the mother. When the first cut arrived at the office, I had two initial thoughts:

1. This captures the concept well.

2. This makes me feel uncomfortable. People may find this culturally insensitive and suggest that IKEA thinks Latino families birth more children.

But when an ad sells and moves through the full process, you better have a good reason to derail the train, cost the agency money, and risk alienating every senior manager. In retrospect, I think this is why I didn’t say anything, even as I cringed watching the actress call everyone for dinner.

That’s no excuse for my lack of action. I wish I had seen the forest for the trees and spoken up while I could. For those still in the agency business, I really hope they feel empowered to do the right thing, even if it pisses off the powers that be. Agencies need to break down the walls that separate internal departments and implement initiatives that create a flatter organization.

Addressing diversity issues

Pepsi famously made a similar gaffe two years ago with a commercial starring supermodel Kendall Jenner. The ad depicts Jenner joining a protest rally and walking to the front lines, confronting a white police officer on duty. She hands him a Pepsi, and he breaks into a smile. The brand surely thought it was being woke. Instead, this problematic ad seems to imply that Kendall Jenner can cure racial and political unrest with soda. The backlash was immediate and severe. Pepsi pulled the ad after one day.

Beyond structural issues within ad agencies, a glaring hole in these two cases was a lack of diversity. Agencies tend to exist on the coasts, staffed with largely white, affluent, liberal employees who create ads for the whole country even though they only make up a small slice of the American pie.

Starting in 2015, the #OscarsSoWhite movement shined a light on lack of diversity within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a failure on the Academy’s part to nominate people of color. Prominent black actors and directors, including Will Smith and Spike Lee, skipped the ceremony in 2016, the second straight year that all 20 lead and supporting actor nominations were white. In response, the Academy unanimously voted a week after the 2016 nominations to double its number of female and minority members by 2020.

I think a comparable approach could go a long way to helping fix the ad world. We need to implement programs that boost minority interviews and hires. Most importantly, this has to be done at a senior level. That way, groups that are misrepresented can take a stand to confront these problems from within.

According to a 2019 survey by Adobe/CMO.com, “sixty-six percent of African-Americans said they feel their ethnic identity is often portrayed stereotypically [in advertising], a sentiment shared by 53% of Latino/Hispanic Americans.” It’s crucial that multiple members of every race, creed, color, gender, or religion pictured in an ad can view it and offer opinions before any campaign is released.

If we can’t trust agencies to fix themselves, an industry-wide initiative would be beneficial. Independent ad review boards should be constructed and ideally, all ad agencies would see the immense value (and optics) of joining. Money talks in advertising and often leads to bad decisions. Setting up a third-party review step could help eliminate the financial incentive agencies face to proceed with problematic ads that cost months of time and thousands of dollars.

It’s time for a change. Ad agencies need to unite for a “You Matter Day” that honors every person impacted by their work, not just some.


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