WALMART IS REVISING AN AD showing an excited young girl hugging her father so tight that he jokingly says “I can’t breathe.”
When the ad was created earlier this year, there was no cause for concern. It was (and still is) a simple spot featuring a girl overjoyed at getting her own mobile phone. It was cute but forgettable.
The ad didn’t change. But Eric Garner’s videotaped death by chokehold, during which he repeatedly told New York City police officers “I Can’t Breathe,” changed our perception of the ad.
The Garner incident, and the subsequent decision by a Grand Jury not to indict the officer involved, is another reminder (as if we needed more reminders) that social media and the preponderance of video and other technologies can shift mindsets faster than a teen can text.
Marketers can mine data and model and do predictive analysis as much as they want, but all that work can be erased in a matter of seconds. They can go for the heartstrings and craft narratives that relate to modern society, but modern society can rewrite that narrative overnight. A playful scene of a daughter hugging her dad too tight one day becomes an insensitive slap in the face to millions the next.
Of course brands shouldn’t pull back and stop advertising. Companies still need to sell their products. But it does beg the question whether the bar of sensitivity has been raised so high that it can no longer be reached.
This is the danger — in a world where anything you say can come back to haunt you, why take creative license or be “edgy” or push for an emotional response when all it may get you is embarrassed, rebuked or vilified?
Needless to say, some marketers deserve these kinds of repercussions. Give me a momentous historic moment — global uprisings, 9-11 Anniversaries, killer storms — and I’ll give you a brand that’s so amazingly stupid it defies imagination. The problem with social media is that it’s so easy even an idiot can use it, so a lot of idiots do.
Sure, some revisionism may be necessary. Society has the right to change and the right to demand that its favorite brands change with them.
I just hope we’re not revising the past at the expense of the future. The best marketing has always reflected our best selves, pushed us out of our comfort zones and into bold new territory, ideas and thinking.
This is who we are. And it’s something that we simply can’t afford to change.