The most recent installment in 20th Century Fox’s superhero movie franchise — X-Men: Apocalypse — recently fell into one of the booby traps set by our current political climate. They didn’t stop to think about their customers’ feelings.
The Easily Offended Generation
Sensitivity to content that can be perceived as “offensive” seems to this boomer to be a fast-growing epidemic among younger generations. More and more nowadays, you have to be careful what you say and where you step. Otherwise, you could accidentally be branded a racist, homophobe, or misogynist. For most people, the content that gets virally flagged as “offensive” won’t even register as abnormal. Unfortunately, all it takes is for one person to view that content in a different light and the creators are toast.
Now, I recognize that there are things in this world worth calling out. Social justice demands vigilance and sensitivity. I guess my point is that vigilance is one thing — and a hair trigger is something else — and not a better “else.”
One of the central heroes of X-Men is a female shapeshifter played by Jennifer Lawrence. In a poster for the movie, Lawrence’s character — Mystique — was depicted as being strangled by the movie’s main villain — a large, imposing male figure.
Now, in the context of the movie — there should be nothing “offensive” about this. All of the heroes, male and female, are both the subjects and the objects of violence — neither more than the other. However, out of the narrative context, the image of Mystique being strangled struck a very different chord with some people.
Interpretation is Everything
Instead of appearing as a cool, dynamic action shot, the poster was taken to be a romanticization of violence against women. Actress Rose McGowan, of the older WB series Charmed, was perhaps the most widely heard to weigh in on the subject:
“There is a major problem when the men and women at 20th Century Fox think casual violence against women is the way to market a film. There is no context in the ad, just a woman getting strangled. The fact that no one flagged this is offensive, and frankly, stupid.”
McGowan went on to call for a replacement of the “stupid ad” — putting 20th Century Fox in a tricky position. Presumably, “casual violence against women” was not their intended message. Unfortunately for them, it was interpreted that way by a particularly vocal group of potential audience members. And if 20th Century Fox did not cave in to their demands, they might be seen as condoning the message.
20th Century Fox did end up issuing a public apology for the poster. It did not matter whether or not their intended message was one that was inherently offensive. It only had to be interpreted that way — even by a small number of people.
Now, I am not arguing for or against the poster. Just that it only took a few people — taking offence — to cause a major company to publicly respond.
The Customer is Always Right, Even When They’re Wrong
Sensitivity to your audience’s feelings seems to be more important now than ever. Marketing to a younger generation of hyper-sociopolitically-aware consumers calls for constant vigilance. We must always be on the lookout for unintended messages hiding below the surface.
If advertising for violent or action oriented movies by using scenes of violence and action can be seen as “offensive” — then anything can be. 20th Century Fox, by apologizing publicly, did an important thing. They acknowledged their audience’s feelings as legitimate.
The feelings of your consumers are always legitimate — whether or not they are correct. (And yes, I realize that in this example, I can’t know for sure if 20th Century Fox’s advertising department was or wasn’t thinking “strangling young actress” was a good idea.)
Sensitivity — whether or not it is over something that we personally view as a touchy topic — is going to become more and more important in connecting with younger consumers. Decide to completely disregard sensitivity in marketing, and you could find yourself falling into the same booby trap. You could be dealing with PR fallout and an angry or unresponsive customer base.
Just because you don’t agree with your customers’ positions, doesn’t mean you don’t have to consider them. The customer is always right and their feelings are always legitimate.
- Do you consider the unintended meanings of your messages — before you put them out in the world?
- Have you ever had a customer respond badly — or angrily — to a message that your marketing team has put out?
- When you’re marketing to the younger generations, do you try to see things from their point of view? Or do you dismiss it because you do not agree with it?