Another social media company is coming under fire for an ad offensive to women—this time Snapchat, after an ad for a smartphone game appeared to make light of domestic abuse suffered by performer Rihanna. It’s the latest in advertising missteps by social media platforms that should be a wakeup call for closer review of content and policies.
The Snapchat incident involved an ad for the game “Would You Rather” which reportedly asked users if they would rather slap Rihanna or punch Chris Brown. The question appeared to refer to a 2009 incident when Brown assaulted Rihanna in a domestic abuse incident. Rihanna fired back at Snapchat, which extended profuse apologies.
Twitter, meanwhile, has been smarting from a branding incongruency that caused a backlash against. Twitter’s first-ever TV ad, which aired during the Oscars, was a positive salute to women during an event that marketers call the “Super Bowl for women.” But critics called out the hypocrisy: the platform has been used as a venue for hateful and misogynistic comments.
Social media has offered an equalizing platform that amplifies ordinary voices, through sharing perspectives and concerns and identifying unacceptable behavior. Twitter, for example, has been used by women as an effective tool to amplify their voices as part of the #MeToo movement and encourage women to call out harassment and assault, ending decades of silence.
But without a better monitoring of content posted on their platforms and revamp of the development and vetting process for ads that are allowed to run on them, social media runs the risk of offending women. Companies need to review their values and ensure that their business practices are congruent with them. Insightful marketers steeped in the company and brand values and knowledgeable about their target audience should have halted the Rihanna concept at the inception.
Given the instantaneous nature of the social media, reactions are fast and swift, the outcry against the ad on Snapchat sent critics to other platforms; Chelsea Clinton, for example, posted on Twitter “just awful…Awful that any company would approve this.”
For Twitter, the mismatch was between its ad that launches #HereWeAre and the current issues surrounding the brand. This is unfortunate because the 60-second spot was almost perfect. The ad was narrated with a poem performed by New York poet Denice Frohman, with a powerful opening statement: “I heard a woman becomes herself the first time she speaks without permission.” As the poem continues, words flash on a black-and-white montage of women diverse in age, ethnicity, and even facial expression.
Twitter’s intended message and timing seemed well planned against the backdrop of outcry amid allegations of sexual harassment in Hollywood, and even Frances McDormand’s passionate speech for inclusion as she accepted the Oscar for best actress. This does not erase the negative, however, that Twitter is perceived as having a low bar when it comes to crossing the line between what constitutes free speech and what is hateful. As a result, their new ad rang hollow and was perceived as being hypocritical.
Contrast that with Nike’s “There’s no wrong way to be a woman” ad, featuring tennis champion Serena Williams. That ad’s message is empowering, inspiring women to be who they are, and also inclusive, closing with “until we all win.” For Nike, a champion of female and male athletes and sports participation for all, the ad is fully consistent with its brand and used a theme of #PressforProgress.
The experiences of Snapchat and Twitter need to be heeded by business leaders, not just in social media but across all industries, products, and services: Any disconnect between a brand’s promise, their consumer communications, and their delivery will be called out. That means business leaders and marketers alike must become hyperaware of their customer, the environment, and their brands’ strengths and weaknesses. When there is a disconnect, they’ve got to be willing to address customer dissatisfaction.
In Twitter’s case, this calls for pairing its strong empowering message with a commitment to deliver a safe environment for all users.
This is the biggest missed opportunity of all for Twitter. In recent comments, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey readily acknowledged that Twitter did not anticipate the “abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers” that the platform would facilitate. While his statement about abuse and misinformation apply broadly, they also refer to hateful and misogynistic comments on the platform.
What Twitter’s ad should have closed with is saluting female empowerment with a last frame that communicated a commitment to action.
But in missing that opportunity, Twitter is left to explain its messaging, rather than celebrate it. This is especially important in today’s emotionally charged landscape, across which a great wave of change is accelerating: from the empowerment of women to ending gun violence. In this environment, companies cannot run any risk of espousing values that are not upheld by their brands. And apologies – from executives at Twitter or Snapchat – are too little too late.
Ellen Taaffe is a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and director of women’s leadership programs