A big part of the marketing process is creativity. It’s easy to imagine a variety of scenarios in which your product can be used. This creativity is essential in helping your business stand out from the crowd. Businesses have a difficult task in marketing. They have to balance this creativity with strategy to target specific customers. This can mean targeting people of a certain gender, race, age or other identifying trait. The question is though, just how can a business target a market without being offensive?

Many companies have faced this battle. Cheerios, a brand of General Mills cereal, has been under fire recently for this very reason. The company created and aired a commercial featuring a biracial family: a Caucasian mom, an African American dad, and a mixed young daughter. The premise of the commercial had absolutely nothing to do with the race of the family. It very well could have been a Mexican family, Italian family or a family of just one race instead of biracial but this isn’t what Cheerios chose.

Did the company do this to cause controversy? Or did the company use a balance between marketing and strategy to subtly target a market growing in our melting pot of a country that often gets ignored because companies take the safe road? General Mills’ VP of Marketing released a statement during a taping of the Today show saying, “Consumers have responded positively to our new Cheerios ad. At Cheerios, we know there are many kinds of families, and we celebrate them all. Ultimately we were trying to portray an American family. And there are lots of multicultural families in America today.”

Cheerios is not the only company to suffer backlash from a marketing decision. And the uproar is not always about race. And just in case it needs to be said, it’s not always television commercials. Here are three more examples of marketing strategy that didn’t quite hit the target:

  1. Newspaper Marketing Agency: Almost a decade ago, the company created a print ad for a popular magazine for fashion week. To emphasize the power of fashion, an ad was made showing a stiletto high heel stomping on a man dressed in a business suit. The message however was quickly lost as the creativity may have gone too far in this ad. The picture was graphically violent and many say it was demeaning to men as men are a vital part of fashion week too. Looks like more strategy was needed and less imagination in this case.
  2. Federici Ice Cream: In an attempt to advertise the richness of this Italian ice cream, the company created an advertisement featuring a pregnant nun eating the sweet treat. Many tease of the sin that ice cream eating is in terms of diet and health but this company may have gone too far with the phrase “Immaculately conceived” as their tagline for the ad. As I’m sure you can predict, religious organizations worldwide were concerned about this causing overwhelming boycotts of the product.
  3. Caribu Bitter Chocolate: The company started its campaign by coining the phrase, “The dark side of sweetness.” Again though, creativity was taken a little too far as a series of commercials featured innocent, porcelain doll like little girls doing absurdly horrible things: grinding up a baby chick to make dinner with a pretend kitchen and another adding poison to the kettle at a tea party with lots of little girls in lacy skirts and stuffed bears. It’s safe to say these ads offended parents, human rights activists, animal protection groups, etc. And very few people remembered the ads being anything about chocolate.

Being in a job of a creative nature, marketing plans have a very wide range and many push the level of what’s right and wrong. The three companies above needed a better grasp on strategy to make their creative visions work. Cheerios though, seems to be the least offensive of the bunch but still suffered the consequences. It’s important to take risks reaching out to your target but even more importantly, your company needs to get its name out in a good way. Avoid controversial risks and just market in a way that feels natural. If you don’t, you may run the risk of having a PR nightmare. Besides, your target will hear the message loud and clear when you aren’t unintentionally attacking them.

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