How offensive ads get made

Recently, Dove received a ton of backlash from its audience base for running an ad that was racially offensive. This is not too many months away from when Pepsi suffered a similar backlash for their Kendall Jenner “aren’t-protests-so-fun” ad. What makes the Dove situation even more upsetting though, is that we’ve come to know this brand as setting a progressive standard for diversity and inclusion; I even commended their work in my post titled “advertisers: use your powers for good”.

When these offensive ads come on the scene, nearly everyone wonders: How in the hell did that ad get approved?

We’ll never know for sure exactly how it happened, even if certain individuals are fired as a result of the incident. But based on my experiences in advertising, offensive ads get made through a combination of 4 factors.


The brand’s marketing department is too white, doesn’t represent diverse points of view, and forgets to keep their target audience in mind.

The marketing department at a brand, often referred to as “the client”, is typically THE gatekeeper for approving all ads that get produced and go on-air. So, if this department is composed mainly of white people (male and female) who are not “woke”, then it’s unlikely they can pick up on things that are offensive to others.

And being “woke” in this context ALSO includes keeping your target audiences at the forefront of decision making for ads. If the marketing department represents only a fraction of the demographic and psychographic profiles of the full target audience, then they must rely on empathy and research to assess how the ad would be viewed by someone different than themselves.

Therefore, offensive ads get made when the approvers don’t represent the target audience and only consider how the ad appeals to themselves.

The ad agency creating the concept suffers from the same problems as the client.

When the client does not have the issues outlined above, then offensive ads can often be avoided even when this factor holds true. This is because a diverse client will guide an agency in the right direction and only approve an ad that best represents their brand and target audience.

But if the ad agency team working on a client is also too white, and doesn’t represent diverse points of view, and forgets to keep the brand’s target audience in mind, then it’s quite plausible they’ll submit creative concepts that appeal mainly to themselves. Most ad agency staff are liberal leaning, open-minded, progressive, innovative, creative, and live in diverse city centers. YET, if they don’t bring their own or other diverse perspectives to the ad creation process, then they can still fall victim to creating concepts that are offensive to others.

Therefore, offensive ads get made when ad agencies don’t represent the target audience and only present creative concepts that appeal to themselves (and the client doesn’t course-correct).

The ad agency is too scared to tell the client that the ad is offensive and makes it anyway.

This happens WAY more than you’d care to know. A common reaction to bad ads by the general public is to blame the ad agencies. Yet it’s quite often the case that the agency knows the ad is bad, but “it’s what the client wanted” so they made it anyways. And it’s also likely that the ad didn’t START OUT being bad, but through seemingly endless and mind-numbing revisions, it devolved into a piece of shit.

The same thing can happen with offensive ads. The client makes changes to the creative concept, makes the final decisions on casting and wardrobe (note: this is where a lot of potentially offensive decisions can occur), and makes last-minute revisions during the editing process. All of these inputs can feel overwhelming to an agency that just wants to get their ad on air, meet deadlines, and get paid. It can feel like a really difficult time to call “time out!” and point out that through all these changes everyone managed to produce a pretty offensive ad.

And even when the ad agency staff sit by themselves and remark that the ad may be offensive, no one is really sure IF they should say anything to the client. Why risk the relationship, you know, if this is “what the client wants”?

Therefore, offensive ads get made when the ad agency doesn’t feel it can, or it should, stop it from getting made.

The ad doesn’t get pre-tested by members of the target audience before it airs.

I’m going to go ahead and guess that this is the NUMBER ONE reason offensive ads get made. In the rush to produce ads to meet on-air deadlines, in the effort to reduce costs wherever possible, in the spirit of “it’s just a small ad and not a full brand campaign” – agencies and clients skip the step of pre-testing the ad with members of their target audience.

Even if your marketing department and ad agency represent diverse points of view, you should still test your ad before it goes public. There is no litmus test like pre-testing, especially if you are open-minded and receptive to what is being said. Your target audience will tell you, while munching on free snacks, that you just created some offensive shit. (More accurately, they’ll likely wrinkle their nose and just say they don’t like it, but then it’s your job to find out why!)

Therefore, offensive ads get made because nobody bothered to ask the target audience what THEY thought about the concept.

The scary thing about Dove running an offensive ad, is that it means it can happen to almost anyone if any of the above factors hold true. A history of getting it right doesn’t mean you can’t get it horribly wrong and undo great things you’ve done up to this point. And this does not only apply to big budget corporate brands – the same thing can happen, and does happen, with social good and non-profit brands.

In addition to all the above, a big take-away is that keeping your audience in mind, being empathetic, and being woke is not a static status – it is a state of mind that must be continually honed, updated, and used.


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