Tonight I’m staying in the Gansevoort Hotel in New York for a business meeting. My room is very nice. On the walls hang a series of photographs by Deborah Anderson; also, there is a beautiful coffee table book from the same photographer, Room 23. Mostly very suggestive semi-nude female portraits. Great work, but a far cry from the artwork you find at your friendly neighborhood Marriott.
So let’s call this an “R” rated hotel room – nothing wrong with it, as far as I’m concerned.
But this got me into thinking – my standards are mine, and I’m pretty liberal. How about other clients of the hotel, some of them participants to the same meeting I’m in, coming from other parts of the world, other cultures, with different standards? Hardly unexpected patrons in a NY hotel.
Are Gansevoort crossing the red line with them?
I know what you are thinking – fancy edgy hotel in Manhattan, you should know what to expect. True. Businesses and brands working at the fringes, at the edges, have always played with the red lines – those invisible boundaries separating what is commonly accepted versus what gets frowned upon, or deemed plain offensive.
And over time, it’s also from the edges that the red line moves. At least that’s how it used to work.
But I think this has changed dramatically; now, the line is (a) moving much faster than we can keep track of, and (b) it’s actually moving from within the mainstream, not from the edges.
And that changes quite a lot of things.
I’LL JUST MENTION FOUR EXAMPLES
Lady Gaga. While celebrated as a leading edge pop icon and one of the most influential artists on the planet, the level of awareness and exposure she has reached places her right in the center of the stream, not the edge. She is as mainstream as it gets today – or rather, mainstream has become her. You’ll remember the intro to her video “Telephone” where prison guards strip-search her, only to conclude “I told you she didn’t have a dick (too bad)”. All explicit and graphic, right in a video that was watched over 100 million times on YouTube alone (how about that for mainstream?).
Akon. Not exactly risque, right? Still, no issue joining SNL’s sensations The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer) in their December hit single and video “I Just Had Sex”. Hilarious stuff, although playing it on speakers in the office would be ill advised; perhaps not as much as their previous hits “Jizzed in My Pants” and “Dick in a Box”, but still. What’s special about it, is how good the song actually is, and how perfectly normal Akon behaves as his usual rapping self, key moves included. 40 odd million views and still top 50 on US iTunes, 2 months later. Yep’, mainstream.
Durex at Duane Reade. Great upgrades these last few months, in the otherwise very mainstream Duane Reade New York stores. Now, on top of your usual prescription drugs, you can get all sorts of organic foods, sleek toiletries, and sex toys. Not a typo. You read sex toys. Right there, between shampoos and diapers, in a large condom isle, you can find flavored lubes and gels, vibrators and rings from the Durex Play line. All in bright orange and pink packs placed strategically at eye level. Sex toys have hit the mainstream.
Axe. The Unilever young-male-targeted supermarket toiletry brand has now built a solid reputation of equating its body sprays and shower gels with irresistible seduction. “You’ll get the girl” is their brand promise, and boy do they project it without apology! There’s dozens of great examples from the brand, but take a look at this recent one for the “Axe Detailer”, and tell me if you notice the red line – it’s called “clean your balls” and answers a very important question: “how can guys clean their balls so that they’re more enjoyable to play with”. Yes, you read that right.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR MARKETERS?
Yes, to a large extent, crossing and pushing red lines is still done to drive controversy and buzz… but not always. The Gansevoort artwork choice is an artistic and design choice, while Duane Reade’s inventory just makes good business sense.
So how do you know what is acceptable and what is not? In a world where a few iconic brands and culture leaders are pushing the red line faster than you can update any internal policy, how do you know where to draw your own boundaries, and avoid being left too far behind?
What happens when the mainstream becomes more forgiving that you are, about stepping over that red line?
NOT A QUESTION TO TREAT LIGHTLY
The question is relevant to me today as I’m starting work on the moderation policy of a new Pepsi website about to launch in multiple International markets. Defining what can be accepted, rejected, and what is “grey area”, is no easy jobs these days. To an extent, community self-policing will help. But it may not work if the majority is ahead of minorities in accepting risque material… as in the four examples above.
- It needs to take into account the cultural gap that divides countries such as Russia (where it looks like almost every piece of advertising has to feature half-naked women) and Saudi Arabia (where even shoulder skin cannot be exposed).
- Even within a single country and culture, appealing to a core target audience may offend a secondary target that still matters to you. Any business where brand prescriptor (e.g. youth) and brand buyer (e.g. moms) are different people, will know what I mean.
- Finally, let’s not forget non-consumer strategic considerations such as key customers, or shareholders, who may have a much tighter red line. Lucky the few who can chose to ignore this.
If you’re still with me, the bad news is I don’t have a “solve-it-all” answer (but will gladly take tips!).
HERE IS THE WAY I WILL APPROACH IT
- With clear knowledge of what the brand stands for; risque can work as a buzz creation tactic; but if it doesn’t fit what the brand stands for, it has no place in what the brand does or says.
- With ownership of our platform; our platform, our house, our rules… wherever the line is set is our call to make, with our moral compass… not anyone else’s.
- With cultural awareness and flexibility; different cultures, different norms… but remember it’s the world wide web.
- With openness and trust; consumers and fans who want to engage may have different standards, so it’s a good idea to be a bit more liberal than we would be ourselves – we’ll assume positive intent.
- With transparency; we’ll explain our rules in plain English, for all to see – guess what: people do understand, if you explain.
- finally, With the courage to know there will be mistakes; no policy is perfect, a few things will be posted that we should have taken out, some complaints will come – we know it, we’ll deal with it.