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Advertising Controversies

At this week’s meeting, Isabella Guggino, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and Brian Myers, Director of Member Analytics, presented a workshop about advertising controversies.

To start the event, they presented some facts about diversity and inclusion. Some key figures that stood out are:

  • Corporations identified as more diverse and inclusive are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors

  • 40% of people believe there is a double standard against women

  • 45% of American workers experienced discrimination and/or harassment in the past year

Isabella and Brian then defined diversity as, “the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.” They also set three ground rules before we started: be respectful, it's okay to change your opinion and don’t be a tool. Telling the audience facts, background information, and ground rules prepared the members and set the tone for the rest of the workshop.

Now that our members were prepared, Isabella and Brian presented five controversial campaigns before putting us into groups where we researched our assigned campaign and answered guided questions. After group research, one member of each group presented their controversial campaign to the whole group. After each presentation, there was meaningful dialogue throughout the whole group. Let's look at the campaigns and what the members found!

Bristol Gin: “Shooting and Looting”

This tweet was posted during the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement by a small UK liquor company. The group responsible for researching this campaign thought the company’s intention was to lighten the mood and bring attention to their product during a highly-covered event. The public perception of this campaign was negative, people thought it was insensitive and took away from the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. The company had suppliers pull out and suffered a financial hit after this controversy. Bristol Gin’s response was to delete the post and issue an apology clouded by excuses, thus making it less sincere.

Dove: Whitewashing Commercial

This Dove commercial sparked outrage as it depicts a black woman taking off her shirt (meant to represent her skin) to reveal a white woman. The public interpretation was that Dove was insinuating that dark skin is dirty and needs to be washed away. This commercial impacted the black community and received immense backlash. The group responsible for researching this campaign said they had no idea what the possible intent of Dove was for this commercial. After it started to receive criticism, Dove removed the commercial and issued an apology. However, the company has made commercials in the past with similar concepts. The group members noted that this shows how Dove hasn’t changed their ways and continues to create racist content. Some people boycotted Dove after this commercial and continue to do so today.

Peloton: The Gift That Gives Back

A few years ago Peloton aired a Christmas ad where a woman was gifted a Peloton by her husband after which she created a progress video of her body transformation and gave it to him as a present. Viewers saw this as sexist because the woman was working out for her husband, rather than herself. The group members researching this commercial said this commercial supported the idea that women need to be thin and look attractive for their husbands. The perceived intent of this commercial was to show that a Peloton is a good gift and it promotes fitness and health. Peloton took the ad down, issued an apology, and rebranded their advertisements to promote health and fitness more than appearance. As a result, Peloton lost an estimated 900 million dollars in company value after the ad was released.

Hyundai: Suicide Attempt Commerical

This UK Hyundai commercial shows a man attempting to commit suicide in his Hyundai by carbon monoxide poising but he fails because of the car’s clean emissions. The public viewed this as incredibly tone-deaf, triggering, and insensitive. The group members researching this topic also brought up how this ad wasn’t even focused on the environmental benefits of the car but rather aims to produce a shock factor. The company replied with an apology after receiving backlash. In their apology, they blamed an ad agency and claimed they did not approve its release. Both Hyundai and the ad agency declined to further comment - not a good look.

Calvin Klein: Skirt Flash

The final controversial campaign discussed was a Calvin Klein #mycalvins campaign. A photo for the campaign was posted of a model wearing underwear, with the camera angle up her skirt to show the underwear. The public thought this ad was insensitive and glamourized sexual assault and harassment. The group researching this believed Calvin Klein’s intention was to show the underwear, and most of their ads are a bit scandalous because they are an underwear brand, but this one came off poorly. The group suggested that if the angle was changed and shot straight on, the ad would not have been controversial. Calvin Klein changed their campaign to include more celebrities such as Kylie Jenner and Justin Bieber to divert attention from the original photos.


Viewing these controversial advertising campaigns sparked an important discussion regarding DEI in advertising and the principle of accountability. Today, it is becoming increasingly important to make campaigns that are respectful and inclusive of everyone, no matter what country it is being shown in. Brands are responsible for ensuring their campaigns meet these standards and holding themselves accountable if they make a mistake by issuing a sincere apology and not repeating the same actions in the future. For our members, a key takeaway from this meeting is to trust their gut and say something if they see something they do not agree with. Thank you to Isabella and Brian for hosting an AMA-zing event!

- Maeve Smarick


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