Seemingly innocuous decisions can often have unintended consequences for marketers and business owners. Whether they are the result of hypersensitivity to innocent actions, increased awareness to subtle prejudices, or negligent insensitivity is open to debate. Sometimes images seem to conjure up controversial memories or symbolism that, if not intentional, are at least naively insensitive.
Case in point, Gucci's recent "blackface" hoodie and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Katy Perry's blackface shoe design. Sometimes images seem to embrace long-term stereotypes by the placement, characteristics or naming of characters in advertisements. For example, in 2017, the Corn Pops cereal pulled packaging that was perceived by some as racist. It contained a scene in a mall where the only brown character was working as a janitor.
UK-based grocery chain apologizes, pulls chocolate ducklings deemed offensive
The latest example from the UK involves…ducklings. As Jack Guy writes for CNN, "UK grocery chain Waitrose has apologized after being accused of racism over the names of three chocolate ducklings. The 'Waitrose Trio of Chocolate Easter Ducklings' contains a white, milk and dark chocolate version, which were named 'Fluffy,' 'Crispy' and 'Ugly' respectively."
Consumers and Twitter users were quick to question why the darkest duckling was given the name "Ugly." Of course, there is a very famous duckling—later swan—named the Ugly Duckling from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, so "Ugly Duckling" has a plausible origin that most people would recognize. Still, some question why it was the darkest version given that moniker. Waitrose quickly apologized for any offense caused and removed the product from stores before changing the labeling on the package.
Companies must determine best approach when faced with product controversies
Is there a risk of being overly sensitive and reactionary to any accusation of racism or bias—especially in the age of social media? Or is it always best to quickly and decisively respond to potential offense? To some extent, it will depend on the nature of the controversy. In our examples, there is arguably a spectrum of offense, with a blackface hoodie on one end and the Ugly Duckling on the other. But even something as seemingly innocent as the duckling labeling—if it offends even a handful of potential customers, or tarnishes the company's brand in any way—often warrants removal and about face in the minds of marketers or business owners.
To avoid such blunders, it pays to be inclusive. What if these marketers had gathered input from a broad spectrum of employees across a variety of age, sex, racial and ethnic backgrounds? Diverse viewpoints can help to unearth unconscious or subtle biases that might otherwise go unnoticed. Inclusion is a business imperative—this example definitely bears that out.
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