Veet’s “Don’t Risk Dudeness” ad: Engagement is not a shouting match

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Veet’s latest ads have been very poorly received.

So recently Veet released its new series of ads, awkwardly titled “Don’t Risk Dudeness” (here’s one from the series). Its tagline: “Feel womanly round the clock”.

The ads suggest strongly that a woman is unsightly, even unwomanly, if she doesn’t shave for just one day. They also imply that men are a turn-off to other men, essentially flipping off sexual diversity.

Unsurprisingly, the ads were poorly received. Countless pieces (by Jezebel, Time, HuffPo, Feministing, The Guardian, to name just a few) expound the offensiveness of the ads. Nobody commenting has called it “witty” or “entertaining”.

Consensus is pretty much damning for Veet, who yanked its ad campaign just five days ago, with a apology that made everything worse.

Just, stop talking.

So in one fell swoop Veet has managed to:

  1. Score a terrible, and terribly wide, reputation for itself with its ad campaign
  2. Dig its hole deeper with an apology that wasn’t. Its statement suggested that the failure of its humor was ours– a perfectly good joke simply lost on an uptight audience.

Grabbing attention is insufficient. To be truly engaging, brands have to resonate with the public.

We’ve talked in the past about how important it is to produce engaging content to survive in a market overwhelmed with information. But what does it actually mean to produce “engaging” content? What counts as “engaging”?

I think there are two main types of content that have been attempted – the entertaining; and the principled.

Entertaining content is generally agreeable. This includes Oreo’s Superbowl quips, Wren’s First Kiss, and Nutella’s family-themed, breakfast table ads. There’s very little that could go wrong with this type – you can’t disagree with love, laughter, and fun; it’s like disagreeing with internet cats.

"But I loved you."
“But I loved you.”

Principled content is a lot more controversial. People’s opinions differ a lot more on principled content, and differences of opinion in these areas are a lot messier and uglier. We can roughly divide principled content (by response) into the currently unpopular, the currently popular, middle-ground, or, the avant-garde:

  1. The currently-unpopular is something the public violently disagrees with. It’s more commonly labeled ‘offensive’. Veet’s ads lands squarely in this. Cadillac’s ‘American exceptionalism’ was another, and their ignorance was fair game and better food for their competitor’s ad campaigns. The currently-unpopular is passé: We’d already agreed at some point, irreversibly, that women shouldn’t be shamed for having a little body hair; that forms of privilege widen wealth inequality; that gay people aren’t abominations.
  2. The currently-popular is something the public is enthusiastically supportive of. Look at Cheerios’ ad featuring a biracial family; Coca Cola’s Sochi ad envisioning a culturally diverse America, and, most recently, Honey Maid’s ad featuring prominently a gay couple and their children. Dove’s Real Sketches drew a more mixed response from commentators familiar with feminist discourse, but it’s generally still popular to run the line that women’s bodies need affirmation.

But popular is mainstream– the brands that win are those that accurately predict the future.

‘Predicting the future’ requires a very clear understanding of the forces on the ground. From a brand’s perspective, this means having a very deep understanding of your target audience. At its most extreme, it means figuring out what people want before they even realize that they want it. This is very hard work, which is why the brands that do this are disproportionately rewarded for it.

Conversely, people and brands who get comfortable and merely follow the herd can find themselves almost unexpectedly on the wrong side of history. People have been comfortably homophobic since time immemorial, and only until recently, being LGBT-friendly was before its time. But now Honeymaid and OKCupid have the last laugh, and Mozilla’s CEO has resigned with his years-old anti-gay statement stuck to him like a black mark.

To anybody who’s been paying careful attention, all of this seems really obvious on hindsight. And yet it happens, over and over again.

If I were Veet, I would’ve featured a drag queen, or a cross-dressing man (stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard would be perfect!) who needed hair removal for a convincing performance of femininity, and that Veet’s product helps with that performance.

This would be a doable and powerful way to sell the effectiveness of Veet’s hair removal, while being subversive. Of course, not everyone accepts that gender expression can be diverse and fluid, but that’s clearly the trajectory we’re on.

In any case, brands should always be a sport and listen.

This applies at two levels:

  1. Listen to your audience to begin with, and understand what their attitudes and perspectives are. Spotting trends is really a huge exercise of discernment. Because really, what are you even doing selling products to an audience you don’t deeply understand?
  2. Listen to their feedback on your products, marketing, advertising, etc. Veet suffered more from its weak sorry-not-sorry apology than it did from its offensive ad. Because what its audience registers is not just a faux-pas, but a very deliberate dismissal of its sensibilities – and this they’re much less willing to forgive.

Lots of lessons to be learned.

Ultimately:

It’s easy to get attention for being controversial or making bold statements. But engagement is a lot more than a cry for attention. It’s about being part of a very current and public conversation, in which the best speakers have a keen awareness of, and deep respect for, other participants and their sentiments.

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