–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

When you put out any kind of advertising or promotion, someone, somewhere, is going to be cranky about it. That’s just a fact of life for marketing and communications people.

Sometimes the crankiness is understandable in hindsight. Other times, it has you giving yourself a dope slap for having missed the obvious. Lots of times, though, it has you scratching your head. Here are a few examples of each.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that Nike and Under Armour each came under fire.

Since 9/11, Nike has run a semi-annual promotion that offers a discount to law enforcement members. This time around, they were criticized for being “insensitive given tensions over recent deaths of black men at the hands of the police.”

bandofballersUnder Armour created a t-shirt that showed a group raising a basketball hoop, similar to the iconic Iwo Jima flag raising, and titled Band of Ballers. They stopped selling the shirt after they were “flooded with complaints it offended U.S. veterans and members of the armed forces.”

Okaaaay. Both are sort of understandable in hindsight, I guess.

chapstickThen there’s the obvious, dope-slap-worthy example of a ChapStick ad. I am certain that the creative/marketing team thought it was a great idea to play off of the consumer reality that you often have to root around to find a misplaced ChapStick. The headline’s terrific. This particular execution of it, not so much. While it may seem incredible that no one in the creation/approval process noticed the unintended insinuation, I can attest that blind spots like this can and do innocently occur. Hence, the post-publication dope slap.

Here are two personal examples that had us scratching our heads.

We’d produced a sales video that featured one actor playing all seven characters, two of which were women. The screening for the marketing staff included two salespeople who had recently come in from the cold: they’d retreated from the sales force to the marketing department during a tough economic time. One said he wouldn’t use the video because he’d be concerned about offending “any cross-dressers in the audience.” The other wouldn’t use it because of “the obvious homosexual relationship between the designer and the manager” characters. Huh?

Unbelievably to me, the client killed the video based on those two objections.

The second, more conventional example is a brochure we produced to introduce new enterprise-level business software. We’d identified the kinds of people who would be using the system, and carefully cast models representing the diversity of the audience and society. The brochure included beautiful portraits of them accompanied by a question typical of a concern that person might have.

Moments after the brochure was delivered, we received a scorching email from a marketer. While beautifully executed, he complained, the brochure pandered to the worst stereotypical prejudices: among them, as he saw it, the older befuddled person, the hidebound executive, and the “smartest in the room” black fellow relegated to a lower-level support position.

Seen in that light, his crankiness was understandable. But the reality is that no matter how much care and attention you lavish on executing an idea—particularly one that includes “diversity”—someone, somewhere is going to get cranky about it, including usually impugning the motivation behind your creative decisions.

The challenge is to assess how much weight to give to the objection. The decision about pulling the plug needs to factor in the breadth of crankiness, the importance of the complaining cohort in your marketplace and to your brand, and the tenor of the times. Sometimes those factors, especially the last two, make you just bite the bullet and pull the plug, even though you know that vocal minority would hold little sway in other times.