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Five Ways Marketers Can Avoid Being Tone-Deaf

Paul Federico

May 30, 2017
Paul Federico

Marketers sometimes unintentionally offend, a trend we are seeing often in the age of digital sharing. Advertising considered to be tone-deaf contains messages that are out of touch with segments of the population. Companies that create tone-deaf commercials are quickly exposed by social media. The best definition I found of what this term truly means states, “To be tone-deaf metaphorically does not imply out of tune with the audience/readers/viewers but out of tune with the subject matter.” – Matt Clarke

Today’s market is ripe with advertising deemed tone-deaf:

The most recent example from May 17 is the McDonald’s commercial. It was brave of McDonald’s to take on a traditionally taboo topic such as bereavement. McDonald’s agency, Leo Burnett London, most likely created this commercial to cut through the clutter. But it was done in a heavy-handed way. People were offended that a FiletOFish was the cure for someone suffering a loss. Another factor was timing. Some of the negative feedback was that the ad ran too close to Father’s Day. Three days after the commercial ran, McDonald’s UK pulled the commercial off the air. A McDonald’s spokesperson said, “We will also review our creative process to ensure this situation never occurs again.”

I recommend McDonald’s, and any agency or organization, follow these tips to avoid falling into the tone-deaf messaging trap:

  1. Leave personal bias out of your decision making.

You think an idea is great and you’re sure no one will be offended. You may know people who won’t be offended. In every string of tweets from offended people I found a backlash of not-offended-tweets. In my research, I found that the counter argument to tone-deaf advertising is based on one of these two premises; people read too much into things or that people are too sensitive. But the thing to keep in mind is that it’s not about you. It’s about your audience. As a marketing professional, you need to know when a large part of the population will be offended. You need to properly test your creative with an audience. You want to keep your job, keep your client happy, and avoid the beating your brand will take.

  1. Get an outside perspective.

Many companies have in-house advertising departments. Most produce fine work. However, as in Pepsi’s case, they could have used an outsider’s point of view.

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company said in a statement. “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout.”

Pepsi said that the Kendall Jenner ad was created by its in-house content creation unit. An outside agency would have provided dissenting opinions and focus group concept testing. Outside perspective is important in any marketing strategy. Having a diverse team on your side can save you from impulsive decisions.

  1. Know what’s happening on social media.

Know your subject matter from your audiences point of view. Listen to your audience. Monitor what they say and do. Find out what keeps them up at night.

  1. Do research. Don’t have an agenda.

This can be difficult, as we often form goals or agendas naturally as we progress forward. However, Jim Joseph of the Huffington Post explained it best:“When we think we are paying attention to others and what’s around us, we generally have a goal in mind. We may not realize it, but we are trying to confirm what we already believe. So instead of listening carefully, we instead are filtering through an agenda for what we want to accomplish. There’s no way we can learn if we have a pre-conceived notion we are trying to uphold. Drop the agenda and you’ll open your learning.”

  1. Develop proper personas.

A good way to avoid marketing that is tone-deaf is to develop personas properly. Knowing your key target persona will help your message from missing the mark. It’s also helpful to develop negative personas. Interview people who don’t purchase your product. This will help you understand how to reach them. Remember, a persona is not an individual person. A persona is conglomerate of people. Knowing this will help against falling into a tone-deaf marketing message. If you know someone who is not offended by your marketing message that should not give you license to say other people will not take offense.