Social media comes with many privileges, and just like any other medium, these privileges come with responsibilities. Finding the balance between freedom of expression and social responsibility can be hard, particularly, from an individual perspective.

The rules of engagement are somewhat different for individuals compared to businesses. Many businesses enlist the assistance of marketers to craft their marketing communications. Businesses brief agencies on what they want, agencies then advise and execute these briefs.

Social media is a powerful tool. It’s the backbone of marketing strategies all over the world, and in many ways, it’s been a tool for social change as well. It has elevated personal brands, and corporate brands, and so much more.

Social Media Irresponsibility

We have seen a lot of literature on what to post and what not to post on social media, and there are a lot of conversations around how companies and employees should position themselves.

We’ve also seen the ramifications of posting offensive and irresponsible content on social media like Facebook. A perfect example of this recently was Penny Sparrow, a Durban realtor who was at the centre of a racial outburst that gripped the country, after she took to Facebook and described black beachgoers as “monkeys,” in an apparent reaction to litter left behind after New Year’s celebrations, and faced criminal charges for hate speech and crimen injuria as a result.

When it comes to agencies who post on behalf of clients, either directly in terms of social media, or indirectly via other forms of marketing that then make their way into social media mediums, the issue can have even greater implications.

We often speak as agencies giving advice to clients on what is appropriate and inappropriate to post on social media. We manage reputations in a sense, however, we don’t speak enough about who is coming up with these ideas, what biases do they bring to the table and if those biases, opinions, and prejudices are recognised, tolerated or even encouraged within our agencies.

Are We Asking The Right Questions?

The conversation should be who is responsible for the messaging. Is business to blame? Are they the ones briefing in sexist, homophobic and racist content? If so why aren’t agencies advising them against it?

Are irresponsible ad campaigns simply bad decisions or a reflection on an organisation’s view on the world? Where do we draw the line? What is a sufficient apology? How do we separate bad decisions or mistakes from real issues regarding representation in ad agencies?

Who is making these mistakes and why? The number one question when racial, sexist or homophobic ads hit the public is; who approved the content? Many of us who are familiar with the approval processes that take place in agencies ask ourselves how did the campaign idea get approved? Maybe a more important question would be who is in the room?

Examples Of Problematic Ads:

Pepsi:  Pepsi sparked outrage worldwide earlier this year when they released a racially insensitive ad which down played the severity of the Black Lives Matter protests, against police brutality the ad used imagery from the protests and misrepresented the mood of these protests and by so doing undermined the risk associated with protest action. The ad was not only insensitive, it was also insulting to those who put their lives on the line to bring attention to such pressing issues.

Dove: More recently, Dove has come under fire for its body wash Facebook post, that saw a black woman transforming into a white woman and then an Asian woman after using Dove’s body wash. This is not the first time that the skincare and beauty brand has come under fire for racial connotations in their advertising.

Flora: In 2013, Flora came under fire for comparing finding out that your child is gay to a bullet to the heart, stating that you would need a strong heart for this news.

The question that then follows is; are these brands insensitive to marginalised groups because they don’t have representatives from these groups in their marketing teams? If they are present, are those representatives not speaking up?

We have had the conversation around what to post, but that isn’t always enough. Beyond that, we need to be considerate of the political climate we’re in, and having diverse teams can help agencies to tackle prejudices, as well as improve their responsiveness and appeal to more diverse audiences.

Diversity: The Future Of Responsibility

Granted, agencies get briefed by brands, but agencies are also responsible for the work they put out. It is important to strive to build solid, diverse and ethical teams who are in touch with the world they live in.  Hopefully appreciating and encouraging qualities such as honesty and empathy in the industry will result in more authentic and effective ad campaigns.