Everybody wants to play the hero. But it's the rare brand that can stand up to the scrutiny that comes along with such a status. Take Jeep, for instance. The company recently used its support of American veterans to appeal to Super Bowl viewers. Yes, the brand did donate $50,000 to veterans -- but then it turned around and spent 16 million glorifying its heroic deed in its Super Bowl ads. Is that hypocritical? Or is it just a brand being a brand?
Often the most successful brands are the ones called out on their hypocrisy, from "greenwashing" corporations to the tax-dodging likes of Amazon, Starbucks, and Google. Apparently, tech companies are the worst offenders when it comes to moving assets overseas to avoid paying taxes. Though this practice is not illegal, brands are regularly called out on it after purporting to be "socially conscious."
The article takes a look at 10 examples of brands that got smacked down for being total hypocrites. We won't even go near the oil companies and big banks because, well, this article has to end sometime. Instead, let's focus on typical, successful brands that were recently caught in tight spots. Some were called out for the usual issues: environmental negligence, unhealthy foods, social irresponsibility, and the like. But some of the examples might truly surprise you.
Coca-Cola's recent ad campaign, "Come Together," is the brand's attempt to appear health-conscious, highlighting diet soda and calorie labels on cans to encourage reasonable portions. The campaign appears to be purely a political move, as Coke continues to come under increasing scrutiny for its part in America's obesity problem.
This ad can also be seen as response to Alex Bogusky's "The Real Bears," an ad he did for the Center for Science in the Public Interest that depicted the horrendous health consequences on a family of soda-guzzling polar bears. Some call Bogusky himself hypocritical with his recent shift from brand advocate to consumer advocate -- others just call him awesome. Bogusky responded to Coke's recent move with this tweet:
According to Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "They're trying to stem the tide of criticism by taking a page out of crisis control 101, which is to pretend like they're concerned about the issue. If they were serious, they would stop advertising full-calorie drinks, charge less for lower calorie options, and stop fighting the soda tax. They're just running feel-good ads aimed at neutralizing criticism."
Back in 2011, Lowe's decided to stop advertising on a TV show called "All-American Muslim" after a conservative Christian group complained, calling the show "propaganda" that "hides the Islamic agenda's clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values." The brand faced immediate backlash upon the ad withdrawal, with critics calling the move an act of bigotry and -- worse -- an act of agreement with a hate group. More likely? Lowe's panicked.
Some argue that Lowe's has every right to spend its advertising dollars where it chooses, and perhaps those people are right. But this knee-jerk reaction didn't bode well for the Lowe's brand image. Lowe's spokeswoman Karen Cobb touted the company's "long-standing commitment" to diversity and pulled the ads only after the show became "a lightning rod for people to voice complaints from a variety of perspectives."
Suddenly there were many complaints from a variety of perspectives, Lowe's? Nice try. Thanks for playing.
This campaign for Clorox Green Works is an attempt to make green products more approachable by mocking green freaks, but many have found the campaign just plain insulting.
"Green seems to have become a status symbol," Green Works brand manager Shekinah Eliassen said. "It's like you have to be 100 percent committed to being green or not green at all -- and that's where a lot of people have been turned off by it."
While we can admire Clorox's attempts to dispel myths about what it means to be green, or to make being green more mainstream, this particular tactic just painted the brand as hypocritical. These dimwitted green housewives are such a turn-off that viewers don't even want to see the deeper message. It's just not wise to make fun of environmentally conscious consumers when you are trying to sell a product on its green appeal.
Burberry is a multinational brand whose global marketing campaign revolves around being a "luxury brand" with a "distinctive British" appeal. Yet its claim to high quality clothing "Made in Britain" is a total sham. Only two Burberry factories remain open in Britain, for the sole purpose of tightly clutching its decaying image of British-made luxury. All other manufacturing has long been moved to China.
In her article for The Guardian, Carole Cadwalladr wrote, "The £4 polo shirts [made in China]? They're now retailing on Burberry's website for £150. That 'Made in Britain' appeal? It commands a premium of £146 a pop accrued from the fact that Burberry kept two British factories open."
"It's very sad that an event that celebrates the very best of athletic achievements should be sponsored by companies contributing to the obesity problem and unhealthy habits," said Terence Stephenson, a spokesman for a U.K. doctor's group, referring to Olympic sponsors McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Heineken. This type of outrage over inappropriate Olympics sponsors is nothing new, but McDonald's was especially hurt last year when it dropped to the very bottom of a brand reputation tracker monitoring Twitter sentiment toward the 25 official sponsors of the London Games.
The mayor of London had this to say about the negative comments: "It's classic liberal hysteria about very nutritious, delicious, food -- extremely good for you I'm told -- not that I eat a lot of it myself," he said. "Apparently this stuff is absolutely bursting with nutrients." His comments were, of course, just fuel to the fire on social media, which got even worse when comedian Frankie Boyle tweeted: "Don't know how much sponsorship McDonald's paid for the Olympic mayor to be a f***ing clown."
Lord Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the London 2012 organizing committee, defended Olympics sponsorships by fast food and soft drinks companies. He argued that the huge investment by brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's is essential to the success of the event.
Parent company Unilever came under intense social media fire in 2007 for the apparent contradiction found in Dove and Axe advertisements. Dove's campaign for "Real Beauty" is focused on self esteem and realistic body images for women, while Axe is famous for ads with half-naked, sex-crazed women. The most famous spoof was called "Talk to your daughter before Unilever does," which has now been removed from YouTube.
Vaseline, another a sub-brand of Unilever, more recently launched a Facebook app in India that allowed users to whiten their profile pictures. The app was designed to promote Vaseline's skin-lightening creams, which are increasing in popularity in India. Some claim Unilever's hypocrisy in cases like these is overblown, and that Unilever is just a parent company not responsible for the messaging of all of its separate sub-brands. But with critics increasingly leveraging social media and online conversations to put parent companies in the spotlight, Unilever won't be able to evade criticism with this excuse much longer.
Papa John's CEO John Schnatter gained attention last fall after complaining that the Affordable Healthcare Act would result in a 10- to 14-cent cost increase per pizza and would possibly compel the company to reduce employees' hours. "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart pointed out that the chain has been known to give away 2 million pizzas as part of a promotion during football season. Papa John's did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Countless internet memes like this one began to spread like wildfire:
A group that appears to be unaffiliated with Papa John's organized a Papa John's Appreciation Day on Facebook, so the brand is not without its supporters. Still, Schnatter's comments have now made him famous on social media as a hypocrite and a whiner.
After L'Oréal blew the whistle on rival brand Dior, the Advertising Standards Authority banned this mascara ad featuring Natalie Portman, on account of her eyelashes being airbrushed to artificial perfection.
L'Oréal is a frequent troublemaker with the ASA, systematically bending the truth in cases such as Cheryl Cole's false locks and Beyoncé's "latte" skin tint -- not to mention several ASA bans over the last few years on ads featuring Rachel Weisz, Christy Turlington, Julia Roberts, and Penelope Cruz.
But tattletale L'Oréal got its way this time, even though these types of complaints typically come from consumers, not brands. In this cosmetics catfight, neither party is innocent. In fact, the cosmetics industry banks on these kinds of tactics. So pipe down, L'Oréal. You're no hero.
For the film "The Lorax," based on the Dr. Seuss story, Universal forged nearly 70 different advertising partnerships to promote the film, ranging from Whole Foods to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But as if selling out this children's story of a creature who speaks up for trees and nature wasn't enough, the company also sold it out to an SUV.
The Mazda CX-5, which is not a hybrid but gets 35 miles per gallon on the highway, is apparently the only car to receive the "Truffula Tree Seal of Approval," according to the commercial. This hypocritical partnership caused an uproar from bloggers, YouTube commenters, online petitioners, and more.
Don Romano, Mazda's chief marketing officer for North America, said that the ad's intention is to challenge people's perceptions of what environmentally friendly cars can be. He emphasized that it is merely a first step, which seems to signal a new trend in low-effort (and low-impact) environmentalism similar to what we saw with Clorox's ad. "If people think that everything's going to change overnight, that's just naive," Romano said. "It's not going to happen that way. It's going to happen through incremental changes and constant improvement. I think Dr. Seuss would be quite proud of that progress and the fact that we're taking that step."
Here's an advertisement that provides a whole new way of looking at hypocritical marketing. In 2011, Patagonia placed a full-page ad in the The New York Times on Black Friday that told readers not to buy its products. The company then reiterated its message online on Cyber Monday by asking consumers to pledge to "reduce our environmental footprint."
Sure, it's a stunt. Patagonia is still in the business of selling clothes. The brand also highlights the sustainable, long-lasting quality of its products. But this startling ad sends a message that is much more effective than that of Clorox or Mazda. With brutal honesty, the company explains that the production of the jacket pictured is decidedly harmful to the environment.
The ad reads, "There is much to be done and plenty for us all to do. Don't buy what you don't need. Think twice before you buy anything...Reimagine a world where we take only what nature can replace." Patagonia's campaign is all about the long-term. It's all about building an image of a brand that consumers can trust. And that's a strategy a lot of brands can stand to learn from. Honesty breeds loyalty.
Chloe Della Costa is an editor at iMedia Connection.
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