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A marketing and public relations controversy recently played out across the globe in social media hyper speed, based not upon the totality of a brand’s message but instead on consumer inferences from the briefest of clipped video imagery. Unilever’s recent experience with an online video ad for Dove demonstrates again that organizations have essentially no control over their messages. That doesn’t mean brands should not attempt to provoke the marketplace, of course, but it does add another set of messaging lessons and considerations for message strategy and execution.

How Could an Iconic Global Message get Ambushed by a Frame Grab?

When organizations get their messages wrong—resulting in what I call Mangled Messages—there is generally an issue with the story itself, the messenger(s) who carries it, or a misguided strategy from management. The case of the Dove video touched on these and delivered its messaging lesssons but in a more unusual way.

The controversy began when Unilever produced for its Dove brand a very brief video clip to go on Facebook. As Mike Snider and Charisse Jones described in USA Today, the full clip showed an African American woman morphing into a White woman who then transitions to another woman of color.

Dove’s stated intention behind the creative was “to convey that Dove body wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity,” according to a Unilever spokesperson quoted in The Wall Street Journal. “But we got it wrong.”

Someone in the digital audience made a frame grab, depicting only that first change (the African American woman taking off a t-shirt to reveal a White woman underneath). The frame grab went viral. And as brand consultant Allen Adamson noted, “If you take an individual picture out of a longer story … it can have different meanings.”

Insights and Messaging Lessons

Yesterday’s Successes Do Not Guarantee Immunity

Dove began its “Campaign for Real Beauty” more than a decade ago. Creatives and critics alike have consistently applauded the campaign’s bold, counter-intuitive, and timely point of view. Advertising Age judges rated it at the very top of 21st Century Ad Campaigns.

The campaign has been deliberately provocative, prompting conversations about standards of beauty and female self-esteem. In these highly sensitive times, Dove has nevertheless received criticism and some messaging lessons for some of its tactics. For example, in May 2017 Dove’s UK division posted an online video showing six limited-edition bottle shapes meant to represent different body shapes. Some commentators thought those packages were trivializing body issues.

Most brand leaders I know would prefer to deal with some level of criticism rather than be dismissed as invisible or irrelevant. One can create a message so bland that it provokes nothing (including attention from the intended audience). Still, there are new pressures to get the story and the management decisions right and avoid unwanted messaging lessons.

We are left to wonder, for example, how the creative-development process was working at Unilever. According to industry reports, the company has been moving more of its advertising work in-house and away from its longtime agency Ogilvy & Mather. Did management not listen to the voices from all of its consumer segments? Were they too deep into their process internally to consider how their well-intentioned message could get mangled?

Almost Anyone Can Modify Your Message and Distribute Their Version Widely

The Unilever experience shows an elevated risk of not only missing the mark with your brand story but also falling victim to others who can actively edit your own message to work against you. These days, one has to consider how the message might get snipped, shared, and removed from its original context.

In the legendary 1980 comedy film Used Cars, a conniving competitor to the heroes’ used-car lot managed to sneak an edit of their local TV ad. In the original ad, the naïve and well-intentioned owner said they had “styles of cars to choose from” and that her lot was “one mile west” of a certain route. The dirty-trick edit was made so that she appeared to claim they had “miles of cars.” The conniving competitor sued for false advertising. In the movie, the heroes had to secure enough inventory to prove to a judge that there was in fact more than a mile of cars on the lot.

Part of the comedy was the absurdity of the rough, obvious edit. Today, it is relatively easy to edit others’ content or cut enough to substantially change its meaning.

Adamson noted today’s new truth: “It’s really hard to control your story because anything can be taken out of context.”

Leaders cannot expect command-and-control over their stories. But even if control isn’t possible, the Dove experience shows there is a new consideration and messaging lessons in attempting to manage an organization’s message.