How companies are treading that fine line between pushing boundaries and overstepping the mark

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 18.18.13‘Exploitative’ and ‘insensitive’ are certainly not words that you want to be associated with your brand. Yet, it currently seems that not a week goes by without brands being forced to apologise to their customers with their tails tucked between their legs.

When we switch on our TVs, scroll our Facebook feeds or tune into the radio, we want adverts to resonate with us…maybe even make us smile, laugh a little, or encourage us to buy that thing that we hope might improve our lives (for at least all of 5 minutes). What we definitely don’t want, however, is for these adverts to offend us.

Yet, at a time when opinions are often polarized and sensitive issues proving highly complex, brands are struggling more than ever to find the fine line between pushing boundaries and overstepping the mark.


McDonald’s makes wild product claims

This week the fast food giant pulled an advert that certainly tested the limit of what’s deemed by the general public as acceptable.


A young, bereaved boy asks his mum about his dad; he’s disappointed as he finds that they seemingly have nothing in common…until he discovers that his dad loved a good Filet-O-Fish too.

Could the brand really be insinuating that a breaded fish fillet in a soft bun can fix what years of therapy can only scratch the surface of? It’s unlikely that this was the aim but people don’t have time to decipher intention, so instead they react with their heart. The backlash tells us that consumers spotted an implicit, insensitive product claim in the ad: a fish burger can offer a quick fix to child bereavement.

Their audience spoke, and McDonald’s was judged to have overstepped that mark.


Expedia considers moving away from cause marketing

The danger of getting the tone wrong is so great that some brands are rethinking their strategy.

Expedia and its agency, 180 LA, have recently stated that they are now considering refraining from touching upon hot socio-political topics in their ads, as they have done previously, saying,

“We live in a time of division, and the political climate is highly charged… Many clients are at an inflection point, taking a moment to pause and reflect before diving headfirst into cause-based campaigns.”

Dare we mention them again, but Brexit and Trump have offered brands a chance to jump on the bandwagon of political outspokenness since, well, everything now seems to at least some political current running through it. However, in a post Pepsi-Jenner world, some brands are considering abandoning ship as winds get too turbulent and seas too choppy.

A marketing campaign is risky business nowadays and brands must be brave to face the potential wrath of critics. However, does this mean that the creative process will become obstructed? Will brands opt for something middle-of-the-road and uninspiring? Will a fear of being offensive stop them from pushing boundaries?


Heineken encourages you to #OpenYourWorld

As we’ve established, the McDonald’s and Pepsi adverts have attempted to simplify deeply complicated social and personal issues into just one bite or swig. So, why then are people celebrating Heineken’s ad in which pairs of strangers with opposing opinions are brought together over a cold beer? The difference here is subtle but makes the world of difference: Pepsi and McDonald’s claim solutions to problems, Heineken offers a moment in which people can openly propose and debate solutions.

Heineken shows awareness that their audience might not agree on every hot topic of 2017, but that they might be able to at least discuss them. And a beer might just help that process along.



Getting campaign tonality right, isn’t a new problem and is one that brands have been grappling with long before now. However, as two major corporations have got it so wrong in a matter of weeks, the problem clearly needs to be addressed. The solution isn’t that brands should dodge social issues in their campaigns, it’s that they should be more sensitive to their audience. Sure, this can be difficult – an audience will always be a network of hugely diverse groups of people. However, through research brands can get to know that audience, and ultimately, use that knowledge to connect rather than alienate these groups.