Mass appeal. Can there really be such a thing?

It looks like the old-school mass marketing techniques of previous years are all but out of fashion. Like a quaint relic of a time when people questioned things less and expected less, simply because they had fewer choices. The mass market then wasn’t spoilt with the same options we have today.

Fast forward to now. We are told that the world and life is so much better and that in this modern nirvana of consumerism, there are of course a far wider range of products available, much more superior than anything that was on offer before.

And there is no longer a ‘mass’. Who these days sees themselves as part of a mass? We are all unique and need to be spoken to as such. Products must be targeted to the individual.

People want things that are cool, trendy, sometimes quirky, something that speaks to them on a personal level. People want products to be ‘theirs’.

So with these newer, apparently better products, we need fresher, more engaging advertising.

The reality is though many everyday products have changed very little over the years and have to be mass marketed, because everybody uses them and they need to be sold on a mass scale. But mass marketing is passé. And the not-so-homogenous conglomeration of mass consumers has seen it all before. The clichéd mass marketing techniques of yesteryear are too worn out and most consumers are cynical about them.

Ordinary products need to be sold as unique and advertising now has to be edgy to get noticed.

Luckily, there’s an array of creatives out there all chomping on the bit, ready and waiting to put their own special stamp on the advertising landscape.

But some are still making humdinger mistakes. And are being commissioned by major companies to.

When the Thai franchise of Dunkin’ Donuts saw fit to black up a model to promote its new charcoal donut http://www.adweek.com/creativity/dunkin-donuts-apologizes-blackface-ad-not-everyone-sorry-152172/ it simply did not register that it might be offensive. This was exacerbated when the local chief exec responded to the furore by saying, “I don’t get it. What’s the big fuss?” So what could have been deemed as a possible ‘oops’ emanated to be a resounding ‘duh’. Ok, the company may be secure enough in their ‘brand’ that they don’t feel the need to answer to the general public, but I’ll bet anybody’s bottom dollar they had to explain the 50% drop in sales to their shareholders.

Maybe it is a bit much to assume that each and every sensitivity can be catered for globally, but when Nivea decided to tell the Middle East that ‘white is purity’ http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39489967; how could they not see the racial undertones? To be fair, you could excuse Nivea for not realising that the advert would then become a motif of the racist alt-right. But things like this can easily happen when you throw so much money behind a poorly-contrived idea and put it out there for all to see.

Snickers told us that gay men are inferior https://www.theguardian.com/media/2008/jul/28/advertising1. Ford was accused of promoting sexual violence against women in India http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/03/24/ford-indian-car-ad-rape_n_2944574.html. And Hyundai’s depiction of a suicide attempt in one of its car advertisements was quite simply idiotic https://www.businessinsider.com.au/hyundai-suicide-ad-everyone-is-talking-about-2013-4. The list of advertising blunders and subsequent brand injuries goes on and on. What is going on?

The frequency of such bloopers has made good business for crisis management companies, sustained by legions of activists claiming to represent a plethora of interest groups affronted by slogans and images.

One of the problems is that such slogans and images beam around the world in nanoseconds into environments in which they were not meant to be seen. Aside from getting market research opinions from a few bad-coffee-loving anoraks, it is otherwise impossible for advertisers to know how their creative endeavours will be received, and it seems it can be incredibly hard to avoid such errors.

Indeed the BBC’s investigation into advertising faux pas http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-39511906 resulted in the rather limp suggestion that advertisers apologise and rely on prior good will.

Such approaches may be of use to the likes of Benetton or Pepsi, but not all brands are so well-endowed with that prior good will. More cynically, you could argue that all publicity is good publicity.  But is it really?

On the flip side, perhaps the way ahead is to publish and be damned. In some national markets, the notion of being offensive can actually work. In the UK, brands such as Yorkie http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/yorkie-makes-shift-not-girls-positioning-new-tv-ad/1135039 and Peperami http://adage.com/article/global-news/unilever-embraces-crowdsourcing-sacks-lowe-peperami-biz/138978/ have thrived on controversy. Selling on the basis of offence – while potentially putting off some consumers – can also consolidate core markets. For the brand, if those offended aren’t likely to buy anyway, their feelings about any ads aren’t really taken into account.

Protein World’s infamous ‘Beach Body’ advert https://www.businessinsider.com.au/khloe-kardashian-protein-world-london-tube-ad-cleared-by-the-advertising-standard-agency-2017-5?r=UK&IR=T stoked fury and protest in London and New York, for body shaming. Unfortunately for the indignant protesters, the weight loss company generated significant free publicity from this. Protein World’s head of global marketing Richard Staveley referred to the campaign as ‘brilliant’.

What the protesters didn’t understand here is that Protein World’s business is based on body shaming. They want customers who are opposite to the protesters. The outrage and controversy that was generated actually helped the brand.

Overall, the global market is ever changing and hugely multifaceted. Any advertiser promoting a big brand on a large scale will have to consider that they’re navigating a social minefield. What may once have been a simple message is now filtered through a modern Tower of Babel that spans the globe. Clearly there are no set rules to avoid faux pas. As a general orientation though, ‘don’t be completely stupid’ and ‘don’t be too scared’ should be two pretty good guiding principles.