Marketing Briefing: Backlash ‘a sign of the times’ as major brands like Apple and Bumble pull ads drawing ire


Creating an ad that will get noticed is a basic tenet of advertising. If marketers are going to shell out significant ad dollars for campaigns, they’re doing so with the hope of capturing consumer attention and moving the needle in whatever way will benefit the brand. But what happens if that provocative campaign has the opposite of its intended effect? 

On Monday, dating app Bumble was the latest marketer to quickly pull its most recent ad campaign after online backlash surfaced. The company had rolled out billboards that told consumers, “a vow of celibacy is not the answer,” a message likely aimed at getting some women to reconsider dating despite the difficult romantic landscape. That message, which was reportedly created by its in-house team, was seen as tone deaf by some consumers who made it clear to the app via comments on its Instagram account and elsewhere that they didn’t not care for the campaign — not by a long shot.

Bumble wasn’t alone in navigating a recent marketing misstep. Last Thursday, Apple apologized for its latest iPad ad “Crush” — which was released just two days prior and swiftly met with its own wave of backlash. The ad featured a massive industrial crusher literally, well, crushing items associated with creative pursuits like a trumpet, piano, paint and more with the iPad shown as a stand-in of sorts for those many items. The ad, which again was made by Apple’s in-house agency, struck a nerve with the creative community as the tech giant’s ad seemed to signal that Apple is coming for creative jobs, especially with the looming threat of AI. 

Apple’s decision to pull the ad was a surprise to many in the marketing community. “I think in general it speaks to the way that social media [responses] and how reactions get magnified,” said Bas Korsten, global chief creative officer, innovation at VML. “A few tweets can make big corporations buckle at the knees. It’s a sign of the time.” 

The Apple and Bumble responses aren’t happening in a vacuum, of course. Marketers are all too aware that if a true brand boycott got rolling that they could be dealing with financial and brand reputational consequences that could hurt in the long haul. Last year’s Bud Light saga is just one example. That might be why even a major marketer like Apple reacted as quickly as it did to turn the tide before it became an un-surfable wave. 

Marketers are altogether more conservative in their efforts over the last year, backing away from issues that could garner a boycott. (Case in point: After last year’s backlash, where Target was among a few marketers facing backlash from conservative groups for LGBTQ+ support, Target is reducing its Pride footprint this year.) It’s unclear if marketers are making advertising and marketing decisions solely based on potential boycotts but they are spending more time working to prepare for a potential boycott. 

“Big companies have always been conservative,” said Allen Adamson, brand consultant and co-founder of brand consultancy Metaforce, adding that being overly trepidatious can be a risk for marketers as they may create work that doesn’t stand out or get noticed by consumers. “At some point, it will offend nobody – but be noticed by nobody and no one will care.” 

Even so, Adamson added that marketers should “should stay away from very polarizing issues” but if they do they should be prepared to back up their stance and “go into it eyes wide open.” 

At the same time, marketers are dealing with the push to do more with less and do so faster and more efficiently. Gartner’s 2024 CMO Spend Survey of 395 global CMOs found that marketing budgets now make up just 7.7% of a company’s 2024 revenue, a decrease from 9.1% in 2023. The survey also found that marketing budgets overall are down 15% year over year and that 64% of CMOs don’t believe they have the needed budget to execute marketing plans for the year.

“There is a general assumption that there was enough strategy and thoughtfulness throughout the campaign development process, and a system of checks and balances, to ensure that anything potentially controversial was flagged and discussed prior to pushing live,” wrote Michael Miraflor, chief brand officer at Hannah Grey, an early stage VC firm, in an email, adding that the expectation makes sense when brands are spending significant ad dollars on a campaign. However, when “budgets are tight, marketing teams are being cut, but the pressure to deliver and ship campaigns remains.” Indeed, it’s easy to imagine those checks and balances aren’t in place. 

Even with those pressures, that’s not “a valid excuse … this is as much an issue of cultural awareness as it is an issue of internal processes,” noted Miraflor. 

And marketers sometimes look at consumer groups as a “monolith,” explained Alejandra Salazar, CEO of Croing, a creative and social agency with expertise in Hispanic and U.S. Hispanic marketing. Marketers may believe “Gen Z are all the same” or “Hispanics are all the same but they are not monoliths,” said Salazar. That thinking can lead to issues where a brand is speaking to an audience as if they have one perspective and ultimately lead to potential backlash issues. 

As marketers navigate the murky waters of trying to create something that will get consumer attention, but do so without offending, there’s likely to be more crashing waves along the way. 

“Audiences now, if you don’t care about them, they don’t buy and that will grow and grow,” said Salazar, adding that marketers may be reacting more sensitively now to consumer feedback but are doing so because they have to. “If they don’t care, people will react.”

3 Questions with Randi Stipes, CMO of The Weather Company 

How is The Weather Company using AI internally?

Right now, we can use AI and combine that weather data with other signals – let’s say sales data, marketing data – and we can learn a lot about consumer behavior about their buying patterns, what drives people’s daily decisions or what drives decisions for businesses. We’re using it, in summary, to help drive the most accurate forecast, but also extract the consumer insights, and how consumers behave in various weather to connect the dots for them directly, and then help brands leverage those insights.

Natural disasters are occurring more regularly. From a brand messaging perspective, what impact does that have on The Weather Company?

We have been around for more than 40 years. And while certainly our business, our society, definitely our climate has changed, our mission has been steadfast. We’re a mission based company … where our mission has remained steadfast to instill confidence. That’s in people, that’s in businesses. How are we giving people the confidence again, particularly right now in this crazy, volatile climate, to drive decisions? 

What are the biggest challenges facing marketers right now? 

We have to talk about the cookie. I wish I could come up with something more original than that, but I have to start there. Because much like our physical climate, the advertising ecosystem is facing crazy accelerative winds of change. This has been a long time coming. The deprecation of the third-party cookie is going to hit some organizations harder than others. We know that zero and first-party data is going to reign supreme and it goes back to the trust. That is the only way that, as marketers, we’re going to be successful; [the only way that] as publishers, we’re going to be successful is to find a way to develop that trust, that reciprocity and that loyalty with our audiences. — Kimeko McCoy

By the numbers

Influencer marketing is a booming industry, expected to rake in half a trillion dollars by 2027, according to Goldman Sachs. It makes sense then that advertisers are ready to fork over the cash for influencer marketing campaigns and deals with content creators. And influencers play a significant role in driving people’s purchasing decisions, according to new research from Sprout Social, a social media management platform. See key data points from the report below:

  • 49% of all consumers make daily, weekly, or monthly purchases because of influencer posts, with 30% trusting influencers more today than they did just six months ago.
  •  87% of Gen Z consumers are more willing to buy from brands that partner with influencers outside of just social media content.
  • 64% of consumers are most likely to engage with genuine and unbiased influencer reviews, and 55% say access to a discount or promo codes makes them more likely to seek out influencer content. — Kimeko McCoy

Quote of the week

“The Olympic Village becomes a content farm.”

— Joe Weston, head of sport at influencer and social agency We Are Social, when asked about the influencer marketing strategies heading into the summer Olympics this year.

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