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Flora's social backlash spread over homophobic ad

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 4, 2013
Someone at Flora's South African ad agency has an unfortunate sense of 'humour'. But what marketing lessons need to be learned from the Unilever brand's debacle?

In this day and age you really do have to wonder about the basic levels of common sense out there in digital marketing land.

Look at the mess that Unilever's gotten into worldwide this week thanks to a South African ad agency's tasteless homophobia.

An advert for Unilever's Flora margarine shows an ornate china heart on a pink (of course!) background with a bullet heading straight towards it.

The bullet is made up of the words "Uhh, Dad I'm gay" while the strap line by the Flora logo reads: "You need a strong heart today."

Oh how we all laughed at the notion in 2013 that a son or daughter coming out to their father would be a bullet through his heart.

Actually no we didn't. Or at least most of us didn't.

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The backlash on Twitter was instantaneous, demonstrating yet again that you didn't get to make local mistakes these days. Screw up and the whole world is on your case straight away.

Bad timing

It probably couldn't have come at a worse time for Flora either.

This week sees the launch of a new multi-million pound campaign involving TV, print and digital activity, designed to flag up the return of the brand's old sunflower logo and a message that Flora can be used in food other than sandwiches.

Flora was identified earlier this year by Unilever bosses as a brand that had not had enough marketing attention, with sales plummeting year on year.

Patty Essick, brand building director for spreads at Unilever UK,told Marketing Week:

“We’re confident that this integrated campaign will enable us to lead the reinvigoration of the butter and spreads category, which has a longstanding and welcomed place in families’ fridges.”

But instead of thinking how tasty the spread could make our food - and I'd need a lot of convincing on that front anyway - we've been too busy associating Flora with homophobic bad taste.

Unilever reacted quickly to calm the storm, stating:

“This advert was prepared by an external agency in South Africa and was not approved by anyone at Unilever. The advert is offensive and unacceptable and we have put an immediate stop to it."

The ad was created by Lowe and Partners South Africa whose managing director Sarah Dexter said:

"I would like to unreservedly apologise for this campaign and the unintended offence it has regrettably caused."

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South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, has a pretty good track record on gay rights, including marriage equality, although as ever the theoretical acceptance isn't always translated in the real world.

Ironically Unilever also has a good reputation for gay rights with its Ben & Jerry arm in the US coming in for praise from supporters of gay marriage (and huge criticism from opponents) for renaming their cookie dough ice cream 'I dough, I dough'.

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Unilever was quick to pick up on this in its apology:

"Unilever is proud of the support that our brands have given to LGBT people, including our recent campaign for Ben & Jerry’s on equal marriage.”

Pink currency

Many other brands have of course vigorously courted the pink pound, Euro, dollar etc. As far back as the less enlightened 1980s, Absolut Vodka caused a stir when it chose to pitch ad campaigns directly at the gay community.

Not everyone gets it right through. In France in 2010, McDonalds ran a TV ad in which a teenager choose a McDonalds as the right place to try to come out to his father (as you do).

The ad didn't run in the US however despite McDonald's global presence and global brand.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, McDonald’s operations chief Don Thompson stated that it never would, for fear of offending religious sensibilities:

"It is an example that markets, cultures are very different around the world.

"I’ve never shied away from the fact that I’m a Christian. I have my own personal beliefs and I don’t impose those on anybody else."

So much for McDonald's global values and ethics, said critics.

But a YouTube version of the advert with subtitles has so far been viewed more than 5 million times around the world anyway, so McDonalds has been left with some serious egg mcmuffin on its face.

Not as much as rival US fast food chain Chick-Fil-A though.

The firm landed itself in an almighty mess last year with a  social media debacle that compounded a PR disaster caused by comments made by company president Dan Cathy. In an interview, he  made clear his utter, unwavering opposition to same sex marriages. It also emerged that his firm donated heavily to anti-gay equality groups.

A social media backlash began while the Jim Henson Company seemed to conclude that Cathy was a bit of a muppet and broke off a merchandising deal to distribute Muppet toys in Chick-Fil-A outlets.

Riding to Chick-Fil-A's rescue was a loyal teenage customer called Abby Farle who took to Facebook to defend her favourite fried chicken:

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Trouble was, Abby's profile was only created two hours prior to the first posting.

And Abby bore an uncanny resemblance to a stock photo in an image library. Her real name turned out to be Pretty Redhead Teenager Isolated On White Smiling.

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Chick-Fil-A denied all knowledge of the fake profile as Twitter exploded with accusations that some hapless brand management flack had been caught out. But the damage was done. (And that was before Sarah Palin decided to 'help' with her support!)

Of course there's a fine line between tongue-in-cheek humour and outright homophobia and there are companies that deliberately walk that line.

IKEA's equality credentials are long established: its' nearly 20 years since the firm ran a mainstream TV spot in the US featuring a gay couple, which sparked outrage among right wing conservative groups and led to a bomb threat at a store.

But in a new ad for IKEA in Tawiain, two men bid farewell on the street before one is literally carried out with the trash. The other man rushes home into the arms of an attractive younger man. It’s only in the closing moments that we see the new lover is actually an armchair, as was the old lover. The commercial ends with the tag line: ”Admit it: You prefer new ones.”

That ad's now the subject of a global online debate about whether it "makes a statement that gays are slutty, always prefer new to the present one! " or whether it has "an element of self-ridicule that lightens it up" - both views to be found on various online fora where the important point perhaps is: IKEA got noticed and talked about.


Heads should roll over the Flora debacle.

And presumably Unilever will be instigating an investigation into how such an ad made it out into the world through what must have been various levels of approval process?

But the lesson to be learned: you don't get to make little errors of judgement any more. You make global ones.

And while every brand wants to exploit social media to get its own message across, that same desirable channel can be turned against you in an instant.

Finally -  butter tastes far, far nicer than Flora!

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