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May 5, 2017 | 3 min read

This Cinco de Mayo, Don’t Be a Jerk: 6 Valuable Lessons From Culturally Insensitive Ad Campaigns of Recent Months

Digital Marketing

Leave the sombrero at home.

Cinco de Mayo is a holiday rife for cultural appropriation: you may associate it with margaritas and sombreros, but for Mexicans, it is an important national holiday rich in cultural significance.

Unfortunately, cultural insensitivity has not yet been banished from our 21st century society, and major gaffes like the recent Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner (see #1 below) have garnered their fair share of outrage.

Today, we’re revisiting some of the most controversial branded campaigns in recent years, so that you can learn from their (very public) missteps:

1. Pepsi

In perhaps one of the most controversial ads of our time, this commercial depicts a police officer accepting a can of Pepsi from a white woman — Kendall Jenner of Kardashian family fame — in the midst of a protest that is ambiguous in intent but presumably aimed at addressing police brutality.

The campaign was met with immediate, widespread criticism for making light of such a serious and pressing social issue. Among the most hard-hitting and widely shared social media reactions was a tweet from Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice King.

2. Tory Burch

Fashion designer Tory Burch’s “An American Roadtrip” campaign featured three white models dancing in a car while belting out “Juju on That Beat.” Burch was widely condemned for choosing white models to sing a song that famously celebrates diversity.

3. Nivea

Just this month, Nivea launched an ill-conceived social media ad declaring, “White is purity.” The phrase was perceived by many as racially insensitive, and was even used by white supremacists on social media to support racist rhetoric. Nivea has since apologized and deleted the post, although some would argue that the gesture was too little, too late.


4. Gap

Earlier this month, Gap released a new campaign featuring the dance group Le Petit Cirque. In the ad, a white girl is leaning her arm on a black girl, which many perceived as passive racism. Critics have pointed out that the black girl is the only member of the group who isn’t striking a powerful pose.


5. KFC

In March, KFC ran a new commercial in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. The ad features a light-skinned, redheaded character who teaches viewers how to make their chicken “more Irish.” The campaign is chock full of Irish stereotypes and, needless to say, has been met with widespread criticism.

Vogue caught heat earlier this year for its March spread, featuring white model Karlie Kloss as a Japanese geisha. The fashion magazine claimed that the feature aimed to celebrate diversity, but critics say its intentions missed the mark, veering towards cultural appropriation instead.

While these six brands have recently taken the heat for insensitivity, many others have launched wildly successful campaigns centered around delicate matters. We urge you to take their lead by approaching sensitive topics with care. When it comes to the politically charged arenas of race and ethnicity, it’s better to be #woke than sorry!

We’re looking forward to working with you, too.

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