In bad taste

Good intentions must be backed by good copywriting. That was the big lesson for Burger King UK on March 8, observed as International Women’s Day. The multinational fast-food chain wanted to increase women’s participation in the restaurant industry by providing them with scholarships to train as professional chefs. However, the company’s social media messaging was unable to capture this vision. They put out a Twitter thread beginning with the line “Women belong in the kitchen.”

What appears smart may not necessarily be sensitive. The tweet by Burger King UK touched a raw nerve. It employed language that is usually characterised as misogynist. In most patriarchal societies across the world, women are forced to take on unpaid care work that includes providing nourishment for the family at the cost of their own educational attainment, career, physical and mental well-being. Instead of bringing visibility to the new scholarship programme, Burger King UK alienated existing customers.

Their initial response to the online backlash maintained a defensive stance harping on intention rather than interpretation. However, they eventually took responsibility for the harm caused. Burger King UK tweeted, “We hear you. We got our initial tweet wrong and we’re sorry. Our aim was to draw attention to the fact that only 20 per cent of professional chefs in UK kitchens are women and to help change that by awarding culinary scholarships. We will do better next time.” The original tweet was deleted after this apology.

Brands must do their homework well if they want to jump onto the social justice bandwagon. Churning out a clever but poorly thought-out line for easy laughs can have long-term implications. Those who care about gender equality are likely to hold brands accountable. Marketing departments must acquaint themselves with the historical background of International Women’s Day. It has been observed to campaign for women’s right to work, earn, vote, hold public office, and live without discrimination.

Which other brands have messed up and tried to make amends? In 2017, a distasteful remark appeared on the Twitter handle of American fashion house Kenneth Cole, founded by clothing designer Kenneth Cole. A tweet personally signed by him stated, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumour is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at —KC.” The humour was ill-timed and out of place. The brand was lambasted for appropriating a political movement in Egypt to promote a line of garments.

The company later tweeted to clarify that there was no intention to “make light of a serious situation” because they understood “the sensitivity of this historic moment.” Cole owned up to his mistake in a Facebook post. He wrote, “I apologise to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt. I’ve dedicated my life to raising awareness about serious social issues, and in hindsight my attempt at humour regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate.”

In a globally interconnected world, it is not unusual to make references that transcend national boundaries. However, people in positions of power — especially those who live in affluent countries — need to educate themselves so that they do not cause harm to others as well as their own brand reputation. If they do not step up, they will have to face the painful realisation that the joke is actually on them. When public figures benefit from being seen as committed to social causes, they are certainly going to be watched more closely.

In 2011, the multinational confectionery giant Cadbury introduced a product called Dairy Milk Bliss, advertised as “a dreamy chocolate truffle.” The advertisement raised eyebrows because it stated, “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town. I’m the world’s most pampered bar now in three flavours.” The reference to British model, actor and entrepreneur Naomi Campbell was insulting and hurtful. She spoke to the press about how upsetting it was, as a Black woman, to be described as chocolate. Her mother called it “a racist advert.”

Cadbury’s campaign betrayed the company’s ignorance about the history of racist speech. The organisation Operation Black Vote demanded an apology because “chocolate bar” is a racist slur used by White children to dehumanise Black children in the playground. It also urged Black people to boycott the company if Cadbury failed to apologise. Subsequently, Cadbury posted an apology on their website. They confirmed that the advertisement was “no longer in circulation” and that it would not be used “in future marketing” for the new product.

The company acted to avoid losing revenue. Campbell urged Cadbury and other multinationals to learn from the incident. She said, “Offense may not be their intention, but when it is shown that it has caused offense a sincere apology straight away goes a long way. Better still they should avoid causing offense in the first place which is best achieved by having greater diversity at board and senior management level.” This is relevant advice for Indian corporates whose concern with diversity ends at gender, and never extends to caste.

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