Political Correctness in Marketing Real

Is Political Correctness in Marketing Real?

Conversations in marketing lately have highlighted advertiser concerns about political correctness. The entertainment industry, specifically, has seen the lives and careers of several prominent figures changed as their content and behavior are brought under consumer scrutiny.

This argument about political correctness now divides parties into two groups. One side believes political correctness, or the drive to think about another person’s response to your language, limits people’s speech. The other believes language and advertising rhetoric needs to work to not offend audiences so as to embody a sense of compassion.

Modern political upheaval adds fuel to this debate. But what, exactly, is political correctness? Does it truly influence modern marketers, or it is just an escalation tactic driven by political tension?


Defining Political Correctness

Leftist groups originally coined the term “political correctness” in the 70s and 80s. It was usually a self-critical term in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. If activists refused to commit to an argumentative angle that might offend another viewpoint, they were “politically correct.” “Politically correct” individuals more often sat on the fence during activist movements, where their peers believed they should be participating.

This meaning has since been lost – for the most part. “Political correctness” still refers to the practice of monitoring your language and rhetoric to avoid offending people. However, it now means different things to a lot of different people.

Some parties use “political correctness” to describe limitations placed on offensive language. This strays far from the phrase’s original meaning and is the source of confusion surrounding the phrase’s use. If we stick closer to the actual definition, political correctness describes an inactive, neutral representation of language and rhetoric. Marketers who don’t want to offend their audiences – whether that audience consists of minorities or majorities – have reported feeling paralyzed by this kind of political correctness because they don’t want to risk losing out on profits.


Political Correctness and Brands

The second brand of political correctness causes more trouble for brands than the first. Fear of offending any audience demographic can limit creativity in the writer’s room, especially when there are a few examples of that creativity going wrong.

Heineken, for example, recently had to pull an ad due to a creative oversight. “Sometimes, lighter is better,” the offending ad proclaimed. The brand was, of course, referencing the color of the beer and the brewing process. When placed in front of a live audience, though, the phrase was (of course) reinterpreted to have racial meaning.


In this case, the intentions of the marketers don’t matter. Once an ad goes live, it’s up to the audience to interpret it. If Heineken had tested its ad, though, with a socially-aware audience, the company may have been able to avoid this creative blunder.


A Fabricated Obstacle or Not?

It is the fear of mistakes that keeps businesses from stepping outside of a generic advertising template. In fact, fear of criticism has resulted in marketers falling prey to the second kind of political correctness.

So—what should we do?


  • Stay Creative – Always begin ad creation from an open place. First drafts are for you; revisions will help refine them.
  • Workshop Your Ads – Make sure you pursue those revisions, though. Talk to coworkers, supervisors, and peers to work your ad into something you’d be proud to publish.
  • Reach Out to Test Groups (Or A/B Test Your Work) – Before you publish, show your ad to a test group or A/B test it for success. Not only will you be able to nitpick fine details this way, but you’ll be able to pull any ads that have offenses you’ve overlooked.
  • Stay Aware – Stay on top of the modern political moment. While it can be exhausting, you’ll need to do so to prevent unintentionally from commenting on an event and chipping your business’s reputation as a result.

In the end, you can’t let the fear of criticism keep you from producing your work. Make an effort not to punch down with your comedy, but speak your message with your commercials. The effort won’t go unnoticed.

Image attribution: EdwardSamuel – stock.adobe.com