The Line Between “Thought Provoking” at Cannes & So Terrible It Belongs in a Trash Can

December 2, 2019

Kiku Gross

Kiku Gross is a writer, punk rocker, and general nuisance from the Central Valley of California. If she’s being totally honest, she’s made a name for herself in the advertising industry by yelling on the internet, and she’s kind of proud of it. You may recognize her from the 3% VOICES Blog, but you probably recognize her from Twitter. When she’s not busy writing words, she enjoys drinking coffee, listening to loud music, and taking naps.

So what makes an ad “controversial?” 

It’s a big question, one that’s hard to answer, and certainly one that deserves more than the week or so of conversation it usually gets when something like that trainwreck of a Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad comes out. 

And yet. Attention spans are short. Deadlines are shorter, and these conversations will never go on much longer than a news cycle. Besides, while it’s nice to have these conversations, the reality is that we’re not going to stop making bad ads until we start actually changing the entire system that creates them. 

Luckily for us, in this world, we have Vita Harris, Chief Strategy Officer of FCB Global. 

A summer ago, Vita was charged with answering two questions: how do you get clients and creatives committed to never objectify women, eliminate stereotypes, and positively promote equality—and once you secure that commitment, what processes do you have in place to check biases? 

Woof. That’s heavy. 

But, the answer to both of those questions can be laid out pretty clearly in three fairly simple steps. 

And if three steps are all it takes to be a better person (and to make better ads), then count me in.  

One: Disrupting Our Thought Patterns 

Developing Communications in a Borderless World. 

To condense this down into its simplest essence: your work must be intersectional because, with the internet, everyone can see your work. Good, or bad. 

For example, remember that H&M controversy that happened about a year ago now? You know the one. The one with the catalogue picture of a young Black boy wearing a hoodie that said: “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” 

That wasn’t even a real ad and yet that got picked up by everyone, causing a media firestorm, and a PR nightmare for H&M. It even shut down stores in South Africa. Yikes. 

Effectively, what “disrupting our thought patterns” comes down to is extending ourselves beyond our own frame of reference, and having empathy for people who don’t look or think like us. So when we create work, we’re not inadvertently creating something that’s going to offend people to the point of shutting down stores.  

This first step was actually envisioned as a workshop with two steps: 

  1. Becoming aware of biases, both conscious and unconscious
  2. Developing cultural competence 

The first part is easy. Most people in this day and age have at least a baseline understanding of what bias is, and what biases they have. The second part is harder. Trying to get people to recognize where those biases show up in their work can be very time-consuming. More than that, Harris said, telling someone that their work is “racist,” often shuts the conversation down—because a lot of people conflate “your work is racist” with “you’re racist.” 

(And if you’re wondering, I’ve found that true, too. Ask me about the time I had to fight putting gong sound effects into an ad with the word “guru” in it. That was a disaster.) 

Anyways, the key to getting people to develop cultural competence (and not make terrible, probably racist, or sexist or whatever work) is to explain what’s going on in the work, what specific thing makes the work offensive, and what impact that has. Most importantly, you then need to give your creatives (and everyone, really) the appropriate language (colorism, sizeism, tokenism, etc.) to have these difficult conversations, otherwise, nobody will get anywhere. 

It was at this point that Harris showed a Heineken ad as an example: an ad that proudly proclaimed “SOMETIMES LIGHTER IS BETTER” over a video of a beer sliding past Black people towards a group of White people. 

Naturally, the intent wasn’t to imply that White people were better, or that fairer complexions were better, rather than light beer and fewer calories were better. But not a single person in the room interpreted it that way (at least, no one sitting around me caught the fewer calories messaging). We all saw the racist interpretation. 

And so did the rest of the world. From Chance the Rapper to The New York Times to Trevor Noah, everyone saw an implication that fairer complexions were better, completely ignoring the calories statement.

Of course, to answer that question that I know someone is shouting at the screen: No, nobody is trying to create offensive work. 

But if what you’re doing has an offensive impact, well then, of course it’s still offensive.

In the same way that Heineken didn’t mean to imply white supremacy with their ad, certainly H&M didn’t mean to be wildly racist by inadvertently calling a Black boy a “monkey” (see the racist history of the word here). However, both ads left people with bad feelings and that’s really what matters. Much like not meaning to break something doesn’t mean it’s not broken.

So how do you make the work better?

Vita speaking passionately in front of a blue background

Two: The 456

It sounds a lot simpler than it really is, but basically, you have to have a process in your everyday work that helps to refine your work -- and that’s where the 456 comes in. 

If you’ve never heard of it, “The 456” is a process invented by Susan Credle that is predominantly used at FCB. Basically, it’s a rating scale for work that goes from 1 to 6. Work that is listed as a 1 is considered “damaging” or bad for the brand and the world at large. Work that is listed as a 6 is considered “never done.” Basically what that means is that this work goes beyond your average advertisement and is something that is “platform building,” an idea so good that people keep coming back to it, building off it, and of course, never stop talking about it. 

As advertisers, we’re always aiming to create work within “the 456” (hence the name): work that’s provocative (4), work that creates behavior (5), or ideally, work that’s “never finished” (6). 

Of course, you’ve probably noticed that “provocative” is at 4, something that people talk about and is aimed for. But something that’s a 4, that some people label as “provocative,” might be considered a 1 or “damaging” to others. So how do we clearly delineate between the two, to ensure that our things that we think are at a 4 aren’t actually a 1? 

According to Harris, this is when she and Credle got together to figure out a solution. Because making good work isn’t just about starting discussions, it’s about making sure those discussions are positive ones. Or at least not bad ones. 

Basically, in order to make sure your work is provocative and not damaging, you have to make sure that you’re giving people the right language to have the right discussions, but also ensuring that you have the right people to have those “right discussions.”

Three: A Winning Mix 

“It doesn’t matter if you have workshops and a process if you don’t have people.” 

Yes, all those processes, and scales, and words are very nice, but it’s impossible to have discussions about different perspectives, or create provocative work, if every face in a room looks the same, acts the same, and has the same (or, you know, similar) experiences. 

Essentially, a “winning mix” is a mix of people on your creative team who reflect what the world looks like at large, instead of a mix of people who all look like they’re the same character in a video game wearing different outfits. 

Here, Harris recounted the story of Susan Credle, Swati Bhattacharya, and the “#NoConditionsApply” campaign, a campaign for The Times of India that rallied against gender discrimination and invited all women to participate in a celebration of womanhood, Sindoor Khela, which was typically only reserved for married women.

Additionally, Harris also shared the “Go Back to Africa” campaign for Black and Abroad, a campaign that reclaimed the racist jeer “Go Back to Africa” into a slogan that encouraged young Black travelers to plan trips to Africa. 

Both campaigns were provocative, especially in the case of the “Go Back to Africa” campaign definitely had the opportunity to be much more “damaging” than “provocative.” 

Yet, because both teams had the “winning mix” of people—a mix that included someone with specific perspective—a single mother living in India and a young Black creative, respectively, these campaigns avoided the pitfalls that would’ve made them damaging, and instead made them award-winning. 

Simply put, the difference between a provocative award-winning ad, and a controversial, damaging one is a little perspective, a little empathy, and a lot of willingness to learn and try again. 

And in order to successfully walk that line, the advertising industry needs to work on itself, not only in order to hire that diverse talent that creates “the winning mix,” but also to keep that talent, so those “winning mixes” can continue to have the hard discussions that make our work, and by proxy, our industry, better. 

(And, I’m not going to lie, this whole speech made me pretty excited to start my own tenure at FCB. See you soon Chicago!)