50 Shades of Inappropriate Marketing

Trigger warning: Domestic abuse and partner violence. Be wary of the external links in particular.

50 Shades of Grey. It’s a thing. It’s not going anywhere and we have all accepted this. Recently, due to the release of the film adaptation, the books and characters found themselves in the spotlight again.

It’s not news to anyone that 50 Shades is widely believed to depict an incredibly unhealthy, even abusive, relationship. Although claims have been made that the book simply depicts BDSM, and not emotional abuse, many beg to differ.

I’m not here to wade in on the arguments about the content and themes of the books and movie. That has been done by others more eloquent than me and in a better place to judge, as depicted in the links above. What I am concerned about is that businesses are trying to tap into the 50 Shades hysteria as a marketing tool while ignoring the problematic messages it sends their customers.

Domestic violence is a big problem in New Zealand. The NZ Women’s Refuge estimates that they help a woman in an abusive relationship every 6 minutes via their phone line alone. One in three Kiwi women will experience partner abuse at some point in their lives and fourteen women will be killed this year alone by a member of their own family. The statistics are horrifying and the realities for many Kiwi women are inescapable. I, and many others I know, have been abused by people we have trusted during our lives. The effects are long lasting and hugely damaging.

Given the public backlash to 50 Shades, whether you agree with the assessments or not, it seems unfathomable that any brand not directly involved with the movie or books would align themselves with its image. And yet that is exactly what at least one Kiwi brand has done this week. A well-meaning but ultimately ill-thought out marketing campaign was launched encouraging women to treat themselves well. It was front-run by a fake social media account pretending to be Christian Grey.

You don’t have to have read the books or have seen the movie to see the problems that inherently come from conflating Christian Grey’s public image with the treatment of women. Whether you are a fan of the series, whether you agree with the varying assessments of the abuse depicted, it doesn’t make sense for any brand to align themselves with such a polarising and potentially damaging phenomenon. Reputation is key in the world we live in; to market using such a divisive tool opens you up for a multitude of reputational and communication problems. And to make matters worse, the marketing ploy was integrated with an online dating application.

Putting aside that the campaign will have breached the terms of use of both Facebook and the dating application involved, it raises the issue of correlating online dating with abusive partners in a world already concerned about the ease with which dating apps can be turned into hunting grounds for abusive individuals.

Given all of these factors it staggers me that the campaign made it off the ground. Surely someone in the team at some point stopped and asked if it was really such a good idea?

The brand involved was contacted by several people via social media but maintained that their intent was to flip the paradigm on its head. It remains to be seen whether the campaign will be pulled; either way, it seems Kiwi women, and men, aren’t done pushing back on the inherent sexism and poor thought that creeps into our mass marketing.

 

Edit: At the time of writing this the brand concerned had taken their social media account offline. It’s my view that by removing themselves from the conversation they have failed to address the serious concerns their consumers have about their marketing campaign. Hopefully they will be back and better prepared for the discussions in the coming weeks.