Ads: The Fine Line Between Creativity and Insensitivity

huge advertisements in times square new york

Advertising is an industry that requires both tact and creativity. Only when strategy comes together with out-of-the-box thinking can a successful ad campaign be born. But the creative thinker bears a responsibility like no other: to be mindful of the line that separates creativity from insensitivity.

More often than not, there exists a difference in opinion over what is considered appropriate. After all, with the internet and social media at the tip of almost everyone’s fingers, tweets, captions, and posts reach a lot of eyes in very little time. Brands are always looking for fresh, offbeat content to capture their audience’s attention, and when people of different thoughts, values, and cultures view this content, brands run the risk of offending certain groups.

For example, take the ad campaign by German automobile manufacturer Audi promoting its newest car, the RS4 Avant. A poster from the campaign went up on the company’s Twitter page less than a month ago, depicting a toddler casually leaning against the RS4 as she eats a banana. When I first saw the ad, I chuckled to myself and thought, what a cute kid. Turns out some people viewed the ad a lot differently: the image in the ad was misinterpreted as insensitively depicting hit-and-run accidents involving children.

The Audi ad that sparked controversy for propagating road accidents involving children

When public backlash reached the company, Audi took to Twitter to apologize–and explain the intended meaning of the ad–to its following. The automobile manufacturer wanted to show its consumers that its latest product was a family-friendly car with numerous driver assistance systems that make the vehicle so safe that even the youngest of passengers could lean against it without worry. “We sincerely apologize for this insensitive image,” wrote Audi in a series of remorseful tweets, “and ensure that it will not be used in future.”

Misunderstandings like these are so common that they are barely addressed, except for in rare cases where they blow up on social media– like in the one above. Another example of misinterpreted ads is the shockingly bold campaign that Nike put out with Colin Kaepernick in 2018 after the football star took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality in the United States.

The controversial ad wasn’t received too well by some fans, who viewed the brand as taking an Anti-American stand alongside Kaepernick, and soon hashtags like #JustBurnIt began trending on Twitter. However, although Nike’s stocks initially fell, the brand ended up profiting from its risky campaign, with sales spiking dramatically after the campaign’s release.

Nike’s famously bold ad depicting football quarterback Colin Kaepernick after he took a knee during the national anthem in 2016

Does this mean that the greater the risk, the greater the reward? Not really. Some brands put out ads that were practically begging for controversy– like Pepsi’s infamous ad depicting Kendall Jenner ending social unrest with a can of the fizzy drink.

All these ads, although questionably executed, have the same goal: to capture their audience’s interest and create brand value by making their products relevant to today’s world. What, then, went terribly wrong? My guess is the deliverance of the idea. In some ways, an idea starts out innocently enough, but the vehicle it comes packaged in doesn’t exactly reflect the essence of what’s within. The conflict between thought and execution is a tricky bridge to cross, especially in an agency environment, where a hundred people are working on an idea that takes a different shape in every mind.

In addition to coming up with ideas, agencies also juggle an additional responsibility: making sure the message behind the idea comes across as what it was intended to be. Here is where a million other minds come in, each with a different interpretation of what it means. Perhaps the process can even be compared to a painter and his brush, where the two have minds of their own, so when the painting is finished it is like what neither imagined.

One way, perhaps, to firmly chalk out the line separating creativity from insensitivity, is to be socially and culturally learned. Being aware of what’s happening around you, continuously gathering insight of the political and social state of the world, and promoting multiculturalism are all ways of becoming more conscious of what might be perceived as inappropriate. Creatives draw ideas from the world around them, so it’s always a smart move to be in touch with their source of inspiration.

Despite setbacks and blunders, however, brands must continue to utilize creativity in their marketing and advertising attempts. In a time of saturated head spaces and shortened attention spans, creative thinking is exactly what brands need to thrive in the market. And yet, today’s creative thinker bears a burden like no other: to spark action without creating controversy.


  1. Srinivasa Pakala
    August 28, 2020 / 4:30 am

    Very nicely written. Congratulations on your first blog. Hope to see more.

  2. Ravi
    October 19, 2020 / 5:21 pm

    Hi Akhila,

    congratulations on this post. Great work and Keep it up.

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