Can brands today stay focused on a core group of consumers?
Of all the words that were written (or rather, typed) about Nike’s decision to use Colin Kaepernick in its recent ad campaign, one argument kept sticking out. It was a variant of, “Well, old white men aren’t really Nike’s intended audience, now or in the future. So who cares if they burn their $40 bought-em-at-Payless sneakers?”
In other words, the risk of pissing off one segment of consumers was worth the goodwill and sales that would be garnered by appealing heavily towards another segment. And a large segment of the advertising community praised this decision.
Yet some of the same people making this argument were, just a month before, also excoriating a Jack in the Box campaign.
In that campaign, the “Jack” character (a round-headed CEO of the company) gets dressed down by his attorney when attempting to promote a new line of teriyaki bowls. It’s an innuendo-tinged joke that wouldn’t have made it out of my 1st quarter class at Portfolio Center: “People love my balls? I can’t say that? Can I say ‘try my bowls?’ How about ‘Check out my bowls?’” You get the idea.
Jack In the Box’s primary demographic consists of teenagers. And stoners. And teenaged stoners. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some people found the ads funny even though other people didn’t, and both the agency and client involved defended these ads in the face of some loud social media and trade magazine criticism.
The aims of both the Nike and the JITB ads couldn’t be more disparate, I suppose — but they’re both controversial. And they both appeal to a selective target despite being commented on by all sorts of people.
So how do we protect the idea of a target audience? Can any campaign in 2018 appeal to a narrow demographic? How many marketers are willing to say, “We know who we’re talking to, and you ain’t it” when the criticism flies their way?
Like so many things in advertising, this used to be simpler. And easier. It wasn’t too long ago that some of the most provocative ad campaigns were local or regional, and if you didn’t see it “in the wild” you never saw it, period. Even creatives would only discover some of the best work in award show annuals. But in today’s world, everyone sees everything if they want to. Campaigns rocket around the world in minutes, through social media and YouTube, and amplified by so many trade show websites and media blogs.
Which means anyone in the world can be up in an advertiser’s grill over any perceived slight. And it’s not limited to large advertisers, either. Think of the attacks made on a local business’ Yelp page when something untoward happens. Is it any wonder our clients get more and more cautious about appearing insensitive?
Every creative brief should, ideally, outline the intended audience from a basic demographic standpoint. Good strategists and planners have an idea of what our audience thinks, feels and does. But all of that can get thrown out the window in the face of a strong idea that might piss off the wrong people — or simply the loudest people.
In an era where so many advertising people lament the bold creative of days gone by, compel each other to “fail harder,” or simply exhort others to push the envelope outside the box, the reality is that ad agencies and CMOs often don’t personally face the consequences of ads that get people mad. It’s the customer service representatives, social media managers, and front-line retail workers that bear the brunt of complaints, whether they’re considered overreactions or not. Blowback, instant and intense, can derail any ad campaign even as it’s just getting launched.
But as we’ve seen so many times, flare-ups over ads are short-lived and quickly forgotten by the public. So I hope we’ll continue to focus the work on the audience segments we really want to reach, and understand that we’ll never truly satisfy everybody. At the same time, we need to give our clients the confidence that a selective target, or a message that doesn’t appeal to everyone, is indeed preferable.
We won’t always get it right. Provocative work will always rub some people the wrong way. Someone’s offensive ad is another person’s Gold Lion.
The alternative, though, is work that gets ignored by everyone. And there’s no target you can effectively hit with dullness.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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