Tone-deaf or great marketing? Controversial ads can help brands stand out

Dior pulled a new cologne ad after the luxury brand was accused of cultural appropriation, but not before it generated multiple mentions, hashtags and conversations on social media.

Dior is the latest luxury brand accused of cultural appropriation in new ad, but it got people talking

A 60-second ad for Sauvage featuring actor Johnny Depp and Canadian First Nations actress Tanaya Beatty was pulled from social media after backlash, but not before generating a lot of publicity. (Dior)

Dior pulled a new cologne ad after the luxury brand was accused of cultural appropriation, but not before it generated multiple mentions, hashtags and conversations on social media the same day — likely more than the company would have seen with a run-of-the-mill campaign.

"The controversy will increase the attention your brand receives," said Mathew Curtis, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California and expert in communication and advertising. "This attention may result in a short-term increase in sales but longer term harm to a brand image."

The ad, which featured Johnny Depp in a setting full of Indigenous imagery, promoted a fragrance called Sauvage. While the product itself has been around for years, the pairing of the name — the French word for wild or savage — with Native American symbolism was new. And the connotation, along with the use of cultural traditions to sell a product, outraged some who saw it.

"Wild or sauvage ... really is an old way to think about Indigenous people," said Toronto-based Indigenous fashion designer Lesley Hampton.

"If we are representing Indigenous people as savage, then what are you telling your kids? What are you telling anyone?"

Canadian-born Twilight actress Tanaya Beatty, who was featured in the promotional short film alongside Depp wandering through the desert rock, said in a lengthy Instagram post Friday she believed Dior had good intentions, but was "misguided."

Controversy gets people talking

The public outcry was strong enough that Dior eventually yanked the videos from its social media accounts, but not before highlighting its efforts to consult with Native Americans on the project, including the group Americans for Indian Opportunity.

Watch: Why people are angry over the imagery and product name deemed culturally insensitive 


Dior's 'racist' ad pulled amid online backlash

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Luxury fashion house Dior is facing backlash over its latest advertisement. It features Indigenous imagery and what many are calling an insensitive brand name. For its part, the brand says it took care to be culturally sensitive. But critics say those efforts are still tone deaf. 1:53

The non-profit firm told CBC News it was "not consulted on nor informed of the Dior PR/Marketing campaign" but was involved in the project to ensure inclusion of Indigenous staff, artists, actors and writers and "to educate the production teams on Native American contemporary realities."

"The controversy will start an international conversation and share information about contemporary Native peoples," said executive director Laura Harris.

Some brands are catching on to the potential of this kind of controversy, particularly when a politically charged climate can mean strong reactions, worldwide re-tweets and valuable back-and-forths online.

Capturing attention

​​​​​​"Today, that is how you capture attention," said Sam Fiorella, a social media marketing instructor at Toronto's Seneca College.

"These marketing companies understand there is no middle ground: 'We're not going to get 100 per cent of the audience. So let's go for the 50 per cent that will back this ad up.'"

Fiorella points to two companies in particular that he believes went this route: Gillette, with its toxic masculinity campaign urging men to take more accountability for their actions, and Nike, with its decision to feature NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who has been without a team since his decision to take a knee before games during the U.S. national anthem.

A controversial Gillette ad earlier this year urged men to take more accountability for their actions, in part because of the impact their example can set for the next generation. (Procter & Gamble)

Both companies faced a mix of support as well as the threat of boycotts.

"Knowing that we're in a very divisive world right now, it's pretty much 'us' versus 'them,' left vs right," said Fiorella. "It's all so antagonistic that there is a market for that type of advertising."

'Culturally insensitive industry'

Some social media users suggested Dior might have done the same thing.

But Fiorella isn't so sure.

After all, the luxury fashion industry has made numerous missteps recently that have provoked fiery reaction online and furthermore, called into question the lack of diversity at decision-making levels.

Gucci faced backlash earlier this year over a sweater many people said resembled blackface.

Prada pulled a line of figurines for the same reason.

Burberry was forced to apologize in February after featuring a hoodie with a noose-like knot, sparking accusations it was glamourizing lynching and suicide.

Dolce & Gabbana faced fury in 2018 after posting a series of promotional videos on China's social media platform, Weibo, showing an Asian woman trying to eat Italian food with chopsticks.

Gucci, which faced backlash over this sweater for resembling blackface, is one of many high fashion companies which has come under fire recently for culturally inappropriate attire or advertising. (Twitter/@MikeishaDache)

Even Dior encountered criticism last year after an ad meant to pay homage to Mexican heritage failed to include any Mexican representation. Instead, it featured Silver Linings Playbook star Jennifer Lawrence.

"It's a tone-deaf and culturally insensitive industry and they've been getting away with it for a long time," said Fiorella. "But some of the backlash is starting to sink in and make some waves."

Gucci, Prada and Burberry have hired new executives responsible for improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace and in advertising.

Dior was set to officially launch its campaign for Sauvage on Monday, but since the ads have been pulled, it's unclear how the company will continue its promotion. Given all the attention on social media, though, it might not have to do much — especially if its higher-end buyers aren't bothered.

"If it is your core consumer who is displeased, then your product is in danger," said Curtis. "If the backlash to a controversial campaign appeals to your target audience, then it can be beneficial."

With files from the Associated Press