Service of Marketing Tone Deafness in a Global Economy

April 19th, 2018

Categories: Offensive, Sensitivity, Tone Deaf


There are some things that seem so clearly offensive, at least to me, that I can’t understand why manufacturers need diversity, cultural-awareness and sensitivity committees and training to prevent them from producing distasteful products. They do need something: Common sense and a team of educated, aware marketers, design employees and independent contractors.

Photo: Crate & Barrel

Take the H&M hoodie with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” modeled by an African American child. In South African stores customers knocked over manikins and clothing racks where it was sold. You don’t need to be South African to find fault with hat hoodie. The same with Zara’s tee shirt: you don’t need to be Jewish to question the yellow star and its placement on the shirt, reminiscent of what Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. I wrote about a similar embellishment faux pas on a top in a post, “Service of What Were They Thinking?” in April, 2012.

Tiffany Hsu, in her New York Times article, “How to Prevent a Racist Hoodie,” listed these and more items such as shirts in which women were compared to dogs and other tops decorated with words like slut and slave.

With corporations selling to countries worldwide, I can see the necessity of knowledgeable people weeding out images and words that are benign in some places but not in others. But often the bad taste is glaring and obvious.


The major excuse manufacturers give for the blunders is lack of time to approve designs because so many are introduced at once and so quickly these days. One website introduces 4,500 a week wrote Hsu. An industry supply chain expert observed that it’s easy to overlook mistakes when you have two hours, not two months to approve a line. The hoodie and star, slut and slave should have been flagged in two seconds. Zara is using an algorithm to scan designs for offensive motifs. Good luck with that.

Another simple solution: stop introducing so many products that you don’t have time to vet them. H&M isn’t finding the model works that well for them. According to Hsu, it is currently “sitting on $4.3 billion in unsold goods…”


Let’s admit it: We can be too SENSITIVE these days. Some things are bound to slip by regardless of well-meaning measures. One example Hsu shared would have flown right over my head. She wrote: “Heineken pulled a series of commercials for light beer with the tagline ‘sometimes lighter is better,’ after an ad sparked criticism for being racist.” Before I finished reading to the end of the sentence I guessed the injured parties might have been people trying to lose weight. Wrong.

There was an image of a frog on a skirt that reminded some of a “cartoon character called Pepe, which was designated a hate symbol of the alt-right by the Anti-Defamation League,” wrote Hsu. I have seen neither cartoon but why would a Spanish artist who lives in London and is responsible for the frog in question design such a reptile for a skirt with hate and violence in mind? Wouldn’t he look for a more prominent object?

Waiting to pay at Trader Joe’s the other month someone left behind on a table just before checkout a carton of “Arrogant Bastard Ale.” I took a picture [below] because I thought it was such a stupid name for a drink, the result of a bad case of “aren’t we hip?” at the brewery. The marketers no doubt  hoped the carton filled with cold ones would stand out from the well known brands and appeal to would-be cool customers. I’ll take the Coors, Brooklyn Larger, Blue Moon or Rolling Rock.

How would you suggest companies determine the funny and hip from the nasty, offensive and cruel for their product designs and advertising campaigns? Have any offended you? Do you think some consumers can be too thin-skinned?

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4 Responses to “Service of Marketing Tone Deafness in a Global Economy”

  1. Protius Said:

    This is a different take on the same subject, but some years ago I had a brush with a near disaster which had all the earmarks of cultural ineptness.

    We were hosting the quarterly board meeting of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest publicly owned commercial bank, headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria in which we had a small share. As host director, I was charged with putting together a three day program of activities for the directors and their wives to show off the best of what New York and my bank had to offer. We included a hit Broadway musical, “The King and I” and managed, how I don’t know, to find the 30 orchestra seats we needed.

    I thought this was a good “vanilla” choice of shows, and seemed to be proved right when intermission came. There were smiles all about. Then a colleague whispered in my ear, “We forgot about ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’.” Suddenly I remembered the second act ballet scene in which the little black slave girl, Eliza, escapes from Simon Legree over the ice. It highlighted it all — slavery, blacks fleeing their European masters, the evil Legree! I could just see disaster on its way if one of our outspoken directors got riled up. I watched the faces of some of our guests as the next act passed by. There was no apparent reaction, and then everybody thanked me as they boarded their minibus to go back to their hotel.

    I’d lucked out. These Nigerians were every bit as sophisticated as I had accidentally given them credit for being.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What a story! My response doesn’t address the topic of the post but does the client-at-the-theater aspect of yours. [Can’t top your example!]

    This happened when I worked for another agency. We took about a dozen advisors to our client’s company to the theater and the person the client sent along got drunk, hated the show [“Sunday in the Park with George”], and yelled out his displeasure several times during the first act. Those in the audience around him were beside themselves. Thank goodness at intermission he loudly proclaimed that he was leaving. This announcement got the applause of his theater neighbors.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    There is way too much sensitivity these days. The “offensive” hoodie could represent disgust with anti-Darwinists who deny our biological ancestry. Someone is always going to be offended no matter what. so are we, as a society, going to feel forced to keep our mouths shut, or are we going to respect others point of view?

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Humor between cultures is always tricky and if a company sells internationally the safe thing to do is to be bland. Why court trouble? For years companies have chosen colors for products, such as home furnishings, according to preferences/fashions by country as well as such things as pillow and mattress shapes and sizes. They are used to that.

    There are also some examples, such as the hoodie with those words, modeled by a young African American child, that would be considered offensive by many in most countries where citizens read and understand English. Why hurt people’s feelings? I agree that there are examples where people are looking for trouble and pick at anything but this isn’t the case here.

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