Advertising and marketing campaigns have been effective ways for companies to promote their products. Since such commercial strategies are considered as the most direct ways to communicate with customers, it is important for companies to take a cautious approach when dealing with sensitive social issues in their advertisements. Recently, however, controversy has arisen over companies failing to ensure advertisement sensitivity.
This year, Samsung Electronics introduced an ad to promote its new wearable devices in Singapore. The ad featured a scene of a drag queen thanking his mother for her support. However, Samsung’s failure to take the local cultural background into account brought about unintended consequences, with heated debates and criticism over the ad.
Generally, Singapore is known to be conservative on LGBTQ issues, and some raised the criticism that the ad could act as an attempt to force LGBTQ ideology onto the society. Moreover, the ad drew opposition from local Muslims as the mother appearing in the ad wears a hijab.
In another ad by the same company in the United Kingdom (UK) this year, a woman jogs on a dark street alone at 2 a.m., listening to music through her headphones. The ad was for Galaxy Watch4 and Buds2, which brought on a deluge of criticism after being released.
Since the UK is currently undergoing public safety issues due to a recent spate of murders with female victims, locals criticized it as unrealistic for a British woman to jog alone at night.
Considering the current situation in the UK, the ad was criticized completely insensitive and ignorant of the social climate as well as women’s safety issues.
An ad introducing the new car released by Volkswagen in 2020 also sparked controversy with its stark racist content.
A man in the ad is manipulated by the fingers of a woman in front of a shop named PETIT COLON, which translates to a “small colony resident” in French. Soon after, there follows the woman’s laughter and rhythmical music. Criticism emerged over how the one being manipulated was black while the manipulator was white.
The companies at issue have made official apologies for the ads. They explained that there were procedural errors and promised to undertake a full internal investigation into the incidents.
What these ads have in common is that they did not consider local sentiments and rights of social minority groups, such as gender, culture, religion, and race at all.
Yoo Seung-chul, a professor from Ewha’s Division of Communications & Media, stated that the biggest causes of the issue are the lack of cultural sensitivity and insufficient research done by the advertisers.
According to Yoo, ads are produced through the process of planning, production, media exhibition, and effect analysis. Throughout this process, the core of advertising is to understand customers and social trends. However, as advertisers are short on time for production, these are often overlooked, with most of the focus usually on short-term outcomes of performance.
“As our culture is now becoming more diverse and complex, it is necessary to follow up on such cultures of customers,” Yoo said. “However, the problem is that they fail to do enough research on cultural sensitivity about local sentiments and social issues, causing controversy as they have now.”
When asked his opinion on why there are so many controversial commercials related to social minorities, especially women, he pointed out the obstinacy of decision-makers.
“Since those with the authority to manage and execute ads are usually older and male-centered, their stereotypes are often reflected in and passed on to ads,” Yoo said.
Yet, there are too many such ads to dismiss these as isolated incidents. Yoo further explained that it is necessary to be aware of and correct the root of the problem as to why such controversial ads are repeatedly made. In this regard, Yoo pointed to the employment structure in Korea.
“Compared to other countries, many advertising companies in Korea do not have people from target countries engaged in ad production even when the ads are to be aired overseas,” he said. “It often leads to a misunderstanding of local sentiments along with insufficient research being done.”
Yoo also stressed that ads are embedded in many parts of our daily lives, playing an important role as a cultural element.
“Beyond the commercial aspect for product promotion, advertising has become an essential means to understand a culture,” he said. “Most of the cultural content we see comes from ads, but they lack so much in marketing capability. A great degree of maturity in marketing capabilities and media literacy for advertisers is required now more than ever.”