inclusive or insulting?Guest post by Katrina Esco

Sometimes, a really great campaign gets noticed for the right reasons (Starbucks’ “Pass the Cheer” campaign comes to mind.)

Other times, despite our best intentions, we really step in it.

Summer’s Eve has been in the hot seat for its talking vagina commercial series. The set of three commercials originally showed:

  • a white woman who likes to use the product after the gym and says something about her BFFs,
  • a Hispanic woman who has an accent and cries, “Ay-yi-yi,” and
  • a black woman who changes her hairstyle several times and later hits up the club.

Also, there’s the McDonald’s mango pineapple smoothie commercial, in which a young black man (who is not a known rapper or celebrity) performs for a crowd that seems disproportionately enthusiastic about a frozen beverage.

It goes without saying that America has a history of racial tensions rooted in inequity, which makes crafting messages a touchy matter. This is especially true when we’re tasked with speaking to a wide audience that includes groups who aren’t historically considered mainstream.

That’s how we get we get racially-segmented campaigns, rather than ones segmented by topic, language, price-point, product purpose or other factors that aren’t based on race.

The surprising part is that marketers are confused as to why campaigns like this rub audiences the wrong way.

Stacie Barnett (an executive for the firm who created the Summer’s Eve campaign) told, “Stereotyping or being offensive was not our intention in any way, shape, or form.”

Dear Stacie: We Know.

So how do you stay true to your intentions of being inclusive and avoid offending your audiences?

As PR and marketing professionals, it’s our job to know that a well-crafted message does two things: gets the attention of our intended audience, and persuades our audience to take an action (buy, click, or share something).

Consider these tips for crafting your message:

1. Check your biases.

We all have them. Be careful that you’re not imposing an identity on an audience or making assumptions based on limited knowledge. (Also known as stereotyping and casting sweeping generalizations. But you knew that already.)

2. Speak English if your audience speaks English.

Of course we want to relate to our audiences. Adhere to the basic standards for language and let your content rule.

So if you’re talking to moms, talk about mom-related stuff. It’s the content that matters.

Otherwise we end up doing that whole “you go girl” thing. Yeah. It was an awkward time for everyone. Let’s not revisit it. (This goes for trending topics on Twitter too.)

3. Go to your audience.

Find your audiences where they are, and join the conversation. If language or context is an issue, get ambassadors. Recruit members of the community to help share your message. What’s PR without third-party endorsement anyway?

4. Know what’s funny.

For example, McNugget love songs are funny because they’re intended to be funny. Two people singing passionate love songs about chicken nuggets in an intentionally contrived setting is laughable in a good way.

The Mc Café rapper and the talking vaginas aren’t funny because they’re meant to be relatable. But they’re not, which makes the concept behind them offensive. (Oh, the irony.)

5. Find the strongest common factor and appeal to it.

All people relate to one another on some level – who doesn’t want to remove stains easily, save time, look great, get free stuff, have expensive stuff, find cheap stuff, find quick fixes, get low car insurance, lower gas prices, have clean hair, save money, get a great job, increase ROI?

Of course we can’t please everyone. But we can be diligent and effective communication professionals to reach a broad audience in a way that shows respect and consideration.

The only social media tool for that is a keen sense of awareness. 

Image: Ed Schipul via Flickr, CC 2.0

Katrina EscoKatrina M. Esco is a creative services project manager with Schipul – The Web Marketing Co., where she creates content for websites and initiates traditional and online PR campaigns. Catch her writing for the Schipul blog or And follow her on Twitter.