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When Promotions Go Wrong: What not to do

Iconic. L to R: Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer

Iconic. L to R: Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer

Recently a movie came out that tells the story of three Black female scientists who were largely responsible for getting John Glenn into space.

The movie is notable because A. there are sadly quite a few people who have not heard of these incredible women, and B. It stars three powerful black actresses (and singer in the case of Janelle Monae). This movie is getting a lot of accolades, a lot of press, and of course a lot of attempts at marketing tie-ins. And this is where my post comes in as a cautionary tale.

When it comes to marketing - it's nearly impossible to completely hit bulls-eye. Because of differences among and even within demographics, most of your effort is doing the legwork and research and making an informed decision based on what you learned. It's a better chance at success than just a random stab in the dark, but it's still not a guarantee of a perfect landing. Sometimes you're not as successful as you'd like, other times you fall so flat so fast, you don't know if you can recover. So if you fall flat, what do you do? Here's what you DON'T do.

 

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

The Problem

The Simplicity Pattern Company, or just Simplicity, is a company that makes sewing patterns (for those of you not old enough to have an Auntie or Meema who sewed most of your clothes with these - you buy their patterns and with the pattern and your own materials, you can make lots of different clothing and accessories) released this promotional photo last week. They were trying to promote that particular vintage pattern by tying it in with the movie, and there was a lot of backlash for their creative decision. Why? Well the main reason is because Simplicity chose to use a white woman as the focus of the photo when their ad is referencing and tying into a movie about Black women. If you're wondering why this is an issue, lets look at why:

1. The movie they are trying to connect with their product is literally about "Hidden Figures". It's about the Black women who were crucial to the success of this space mission, but for many reasons have been left out of the history and conversations surrounding their contributions. With the way that our country has left out, underplayed, or outright ignored the contributions of people of color and Black people in many areas (especially when it comes to the areas of science and technology), it was a slap in the face to see the story of these women used to promote a product and have the central focus be a white woman.

2. Simplicity's tone deaf response.

Simplicity's response to the many comments and complaints to them directly and on their social media was not a very savvy one. Instead of acknowledging that their ad was tone deaf and addressing the complaints, they hid the image and gave a "non-apology". Simplicity's response was basically that the pattern was an old one, and that's the original model and photo that was used. So how could this have been better handled from a Marketing and PR standpoint? Several ways:

  • Hire a model for the shoot. Simplicity patterns aren't very expensive and they may not have a huge budget, but a simple casting call and even an offer of compensation in the form of a pattern or "Exposure" ( I know, I know) would have been better than nothing. This could have been done in advance and avoided some problems. This is why marketing and advertising requires paying close attention to what you produce, and also having several eyes look over it before it goes out to the general public. You don't need a huge budget for this. You can just have some friends or family give it the once over.
     
  • Offer a REAL apology. Apologize for being tone deaf, not having a well thought out promotion, and unintentionally contributing to the erasure of Black women and their contributions and their presence. FOR THE RECORD: "We're sorry this was interpreted this way" would not have worked and is not a real apology.

This is a milder case study of how to handle PR mishaps, and how to make sure you put as much thought as possible into your marketing campaigns before you set them loose. It's much easier to avoid making messes in the first place than it is to try and clean them up and deal with a disaster after it's happened already.

For a more extreme example, see the incident with Seasalt and their choice to use a noose in their promotional material and the subsequent handling of it, Oh My! Handmade Goodness has a god blog post about it HERE. Full disclosure I gave a quote and a statement on the incident as I was there firsthand to see the backlash, but it has a good breakdown about the entire incident. What are some examples you've seen of "when marketing goes wrong", and less than stellar handling of it?