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Historically Tone-Deaf Ads And How To Learn From Them

Abi Karthigesu
Written By
Abi Karthigesu
Published On
May 13, 2019
Historically Tone-Deaf Ads And How To Learn From Them

From the royal influence of Queen Charlotte’s “Queen’s ware”, to the earliest documented traces of brand ambassadors like Aunt Jemima and Honus Wagner, advertising has influenced public opinion for centuries.

In recent years, adjectives like diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords in the world of advertising as brands seek to establish a universal appeal. The efforts of some brands have famously backfired, with tone deaf advertisements inciting backlash from both the public and media alike. As it turns out, producing campaigns that are tactfully respectful of gender, culture, race, and sexual orientation has proven to be a challenge for many brands – but these failures have presented valuable lessons for the rest of the industry.

So, let’s review a few historically unfortunate advertising campaigns and highlight some of those learnings. After all, advertising, branding and influencer marketing can be powerful and positive tools when executed with thoughtfulness.

Advertising Campaigns We Can Learn From

Aunt Jemima 

One of the earliest known brand ambassadors was Nancy Green, the actress hired to play the famed character of Aunt Jemima. Today, Quaker Oats (the parent company of Aunt Jemima), has cleverly reframed the face of the brand to reflect a compassionate, loving and motherly figure that could symbolize any middle class American — but it wasn’t always that way.

The Aunt Jemima trademark was conceptualized by Chriss Rutt, the original creator of the self rising pancake mix. By the mid 1900s, the brand faced major criticism of its negative representation of African-American women. Nancy Green as Aunt Jemima was portrayed as a “mammy” with a red bandana. The ads were interpreted by many as having racist, classist, and sexist undertones by promoting African-American stereotypes.

Dolce & Gabbana

Near the end of 2018, Dolce & Gabbana came under fire for their controversial ad series featuring a Chinese model. In the videos, the model was shown struggling to pick up pasta and pizza while Chinese music played in the background. She was pictured giggling behind her hands, further propelling racial and gendered stereotypes.

After the videos were released, public outrage broke throughout China and the rest of the world. The public disapproved of the brand’s explicit racism stereotyping Chinese audiences and within 24 hours all of the campaign’s content was pulled from their social media channels. Dolce & Gabbana is still recovering from, and paying for (literally) the significant hit to their brand’s reputation.

H&M: “Coolest Monkey In The Jungle”

Just as 2017 turned a corner and 2018 promised new beginnings, global giant H&M put out controversial advertisements that had the online world stirring. H&M published images on its British site with a black boy wearing a hoodie reading “coolest monkey in the jungle”. The photos spread like wildfire on social media and people were quick to criticize the company’s racist undertones–monkeys have long been associated with racial slurs towards black communities. To make things worse, a white boy was photographed wearing a sweater with “survival expert” written on it. Many people interpreted the contrast as a reflection of current societal issues.

H&M immediately pulled the ads and stopped selling the sweaters altogether. Although the company admitted that they missed the mark, they still faced major hits to their brand presence. The Weeknd notably announced he would no longer be working with the brand, and people boycotted stores worldwide.

Pepsi: Kendall Jenner  

Pepsi has a rich history of creating big budget influencer campaigns, from Michael Jackson to Beyonce and “The Office” superstar Steve Carrell. Excited to join the brand’s A-list roster, Kendall Jenner proudly announced her partnership with the pop brand in 2017, and she certainly never expected the intense criticism it would receive.  

The advertisement that has now become a popular case study among marketers went wrong in a few ways. First, the ad was set at a protest with borrowed elements from the Black Lives Matter movement. In the video, Kendall casually joins a protest full of smiling faces, and hands a cheerful police officer a peace offering in the form of a pepsi can.

Pepsi and Kendall Jenner faced major backlash for trivializing a very real, and very serious movement. Elle Hearns, a former organizer for BLM commented on the brand’s insensitivity, saying “No one is finding joy from Pepsi at a protest. That’s just not the reality of our lives. That’s not what it looks like to take bold action”. She added that the commercial “plays down the sacrifices people have historically taken in utilizing protests”.


Burberry has developed a universal reputation as one of the world’s leading luxury fashion brands. Earlier this year, the company displayed one of its latest collections at London’s fashion week.

In the show, a model strutted down the runway wearing a sweatshirt with drawstrings tied as a noose. Although the fashion industry is known for being daring and controversial, this piece was instantly interpreted as insensitive and tone deaf. The model who wore the sweater expressed that “suicide is not fashion”, and Burberry’s CEO, Marco Gobbetti stated that her experience did “not reflect who we are and our values. We will reflect on this, learn from it and put in place all necessary actions to ensure it does not happen again.”

Despite making this statement, many observers were still upset that the company could be so oblivious to obvious resemblances of triggering symbols.

What These Campaigns Have Taught The Advertising Industry

There’s no doubt that brands have crossed lines, created tone-deaf content and offended massive audiences throughout history. Advertisers and marketers have incredible power in being able to share messages across wide audiences but doing so in a respectful, insightful and culturally sensitive manner is crucial to a brand’s success.

Three Ways to Exercise Inclusion in Advertising:

 1. Use a Diverse Range of Talent 

Within the requirements of a client’s advertising program, try to be as inclusive as possible! Whether it’s choosing campaign actors with disabilities, different body types or cultural backgrounds, the more diverse, the better. By creating a healthy mix of influencers or brand representatives, your reach can resonate with different (and therefore more) audiences.

2. Avoid Stereotypes 

As you develop marketing campaigns, avoid portraying stereotypes of any cultural, religious, or racial group. Generalizing an entire population never fares well and backlash is almost guaranteed.

3. Bring Diverse Thinkers Onto Your Team

Many brands create ads with good intentions but go wrong when they are not able to relate with, or deeply understand the audiences they’re targeting. If you’re working on a culture-specific campaign, ask people of that culture how they feel about it. What’s the point of creating a focus group if the members of the group aren’t able to speak on the subject at hand?

It’s always great to bring diverse thinkers to your staff. Having a variety of thought processes and opinions can prevent insensitive material from ever making the publishing stages.

The Importance of Diversity In Today’s World

It’s 2019, and diversity matters more than ever. To maximize results, advertisers can proactively react to the increase in gender, racial, and sexual orientation diversity. Statistics show that marketing to diverse populations can not only improve social dynamics, but even increase revenue.

At the Influence Agency, we actively work to integrate inclusivity in our projects.  We have teamed with clients that embrace, advocate for, and celebrate all types of issues including Plan Canada, Pride Toronto, WE Day, and more. We share a collective belief that spreading messages through diverse voices have the power to move people.

What lessons have you learned from tone deaf marketing campaigns? Let us know in the comments below.



  • Abi Karthigesu

    Abi Karthigesu is the Social Advertising Manager at TIA and specializes in funnel strategy to scale businesses! She's also the self-appointed ambassador for the City of Winnipeg and loves a good cup of coffee. Find her online at @abikarthi

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  • Abi Karthigesu

    Abi Karthigesu is the Social Advertising Manager at TIA and specializes in funnel strategy to scale businesses! She's also the self-appointed ambassador for the City of Winnipeg and loves a good cup of coffee. Find her online at @abikarthi

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