As part of a new advertising campaign on social media, the Italian airline Alitalia released a series of videos promoting flights to Washington, D.C. According to media reports, in one of the videos, an actor in blackface portrayed former President Barack Obama.
After social media caught wind of the issue, earlier this month Alitalia pulled the video and apologized. Alitalia said, "Alitalia deeply apologizes for the offense caused by the promotional video on our Washington route. It has since been removed. For our Company, respect for everyone is mandatory. It was never our intention to hurt anyone and we will learn from what has happened."
It seems that, almost every month, we report on an advertiser that gets called out for making missteps involving serious taste, decency, or cultural-related issues -- often with an international component. When these issues come up, they have serious consequences for the brand. Having to pull a campaign not only wastes money, but it can leave a brand without needed advertising. Even more importantly, these kinds of missteps can create significant adverse publicity and create long term damage to the brand. And, because everything is online, it never goes away.
In response to the blackface incident, Alitalia said that it "will learn from what has happened." Other advertisers should learn from it as well. What are some important take-aways? First, when creating advertising that has international implications, make sure you consult with local experts. Second, consider who is part of your advertising review process. Do you have a diverse team set up with proper expertise and experience, as well as cultural sensitivity, who will have the ability to catch potential missteps? Third, while you may outsource the production of your advertising, you shouldn't turn a blind eye to how the advertising is produced and the choices that are being made. Make sure that you fully understand what is going on and the messages that are being communicated. And, fourth, no blackface.
(Maybe in another post we can talk about the right of publicity issues that this campaign raised as well . . . .)
"we will learn from what has happened"