Engaging with cultural sensitivities in advertising

By Ralph Tathagata

As the debate over whether advertisers should abandon sites like Twitter intensifies, the ever-changing advertising environment becomes even trickier to navigate. The need for advertisers to establish a thoughtful and attuned process to determine how to engage with cultural sensitivities around hot-button issues cannot also be overstressed.

Whether it is an error related to the cultural lexicon or sociopolitical sensitivity, there are steps advertisers should consider when reacting to cultural controversies.

Firstly, brands and advertisers should look at how actions and words are perceived before weighing in on culturally sensitive issues, or seek out many points of view by testing them with their intended audience. By doing so, brands and advertisers will not be seen as throwing their products and services at issues in a way that may come across as tone-deaf or even crass commercialism.

Secondly, some consumers may perceive the engagement as shallow and lacking in understanding of the matter at issue. In fact, if a brand is going to take a stand on an issue, it should do so early and clearly. There should be no room for prevarication or equivocation when engaging in culturally sensitive issues.

As consumers become more laser-focused on authenticity, young people in particular have turned experts at sniffing out hypocrisy in brand engagement. So, it pays more for brands and advertisers to strategically court certain demographics by expressing strong opinions.

According to a survey from Sprout Social, an online platform, 70% of consumers believe it is important for a brand to take a stand on social and political issues. And following in the footsteps of Nike and Patagonia, the list of brands taking social and political stands has grown to span every industry.

With so many organizations eager to voice their beliefs, the social media landscape has become saturated with brand-sponsored cause marketing and brands are using social activism as an advertising ploy.

Therefore, if a brand says it is going to support a cause or movement, there needs to be depth behind it. If a brand is not willing to back up its words with strong and visible action, it will backfire and consumers will hold the brand to account.

That cultural sensitivities are changing rapidly doesn’t mean brands and advertisers will always get it right; but they have to try. They have to listen to their audience, understand and clearly communicate their values, know what, when, whether and where to speak about the controversies in the world around them.


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