If you were Russian, would you find the mockery of your accent by a meerkat offensive?
Would it make a difference if the meerkat was part of a marketing campaign for a pet shelter or an insurance comparison website?
(See more about the UK Meerkat controversy here)
These are the types of tough questions marketers have to ask themselves on a regular basis, and there are a host of things to consider regarding people’s perceptions and reactions.
As a marketer, you may want to communicate a sensitive message, or perhaps you just want to add spice to your boring message with the use of satire and humour in animation.
Animated video is useful for communicating a message in a light-hearted way, but sometimes even a cartoon can be found inappropriate.
There are various things to consider when crafting your animated video to gain the best chances of kerbing offence.
This is the case whether you feel you’re taking a creative risk or not, as there can be some traps when using animation.
The effect your animated video has on viewers will depend on the choices you make.
We’ve put together a list of things to consider as part of your animated marketing video plan.
Tip 1. Consider the context of what’s being marketed
The nature of your organisation is an important factor to bear in mind when deciding on your animation approach.
Context often plays a part in people’s perception.
A sensitive topic: When dealing with a sensitive topic like HIV, the inclusion of sexual content in your campaign might be accepted and considered appropriate, as the provocative content is associated with the topic.
A bland product: A similar sexual scene to advertise a razor could be found unnecessary and offensive. Here, rational differentiation is difficult; so an emotional appeal has become increasingly popular.
In each of these cases, sexual content is included in the video for very different reasons – to help to explain something, or purely to advertise.
A controversial scenario: For a condom advert, where the need for provocative content is less clear – as the video is advertising a brand, not explaining the product’s use or detailing health implications – perceptions might be more mixed.
When there is an unclear link between controversial content and a product or organisation, this can result in offended viewers.
But this same content could be attracting and engaging an audience too. The key is to determine whether it is your target market that is being appealed to.
It is here that we move from the importance of context to the significance of the target market.
Tip 2. Define your target audience
Whether or not you choose to apply potentially provocative or offensive content in your animated promotional video might depend on how defined your market is.
For the exact same product you might release different adverts to appeal to different segments of the market – with diverse animation style as well as content.
But if any of these adverts are found offensive by another market, this can still affect brand image.
With a tightly defined market segment for a niche product, the damage from offending untargeted markets will often be less – though this depends largely on what criteria is doing the offending.
Tip 3. Explore the characteristics of your target market
In some cases, defining the typical characteristics of your target customer can be reasonably closely achieved (though of course never precisely), and so offensive material can be reduced.
But so many elements are at play in each individual’s character, their perceptions and behaviour, that avoiding all offense from your target market is unlikely.
Consumer buyer behaviour is shaped by four vital sets of buyer characteristics: cultural, social, personal and physical. Within these, there are many elements to consider, from demographics, to ethnicity, to sexual orientation.
Animation can often help to play down offence from satire, as with the Compare the Market meerkat adverts – which have been successful despite some offence caused.
But when content is of a more sensitive nature – for example, mocking religion rather than an accent – offence can be more severe, and more difficult to predict.
Tip 4. Decide whether to play it safe or be creative
When planning your animated video, you will need to decide on not only your animation style, but also what angle your creativity will take.
A mixture of innovative animation techniques and special effects with a satirical storyline can produce highly engaging results if the right balance is achieved, as in this KitKat advert.
The advertisement includes satirical comedy of office life, is somewhat sexist, and hints (without any obvious religious link) that the character in the story may have gone to heaven when eating a KitKat.
But it was not considered highly offensive.
This is because the advert has kept any use of satire quite vague, without any derogative suggestion.
Sexism has become more unacceptable over the years, so going beyond featuring a woman in a mini-skirt – for example, by making all the women in the office receptionists – will likely increase the number of offended viewers.
Violence is also an area that can obviously offend, and its application – even in what might be considered a mild form – can provoke just as much of a negative reaction in animation as in live action video.
When creating your animated characters, it is safer to make them as diverse as possible with regard to sex, race, age, demographics, religion and so on.
In animation, the use of surreal and unusual characters can sometimes make marketers miss what some might see as prejudice.
Some years back, a Cravendale milk advert that included only white bulls was perceived by some viewers to be racist.
When it comes to religion, race, nationality and personal matters, people can be highly sensitive, so the fine line between humour and offence should be stringently assessed.
Market research and surveys can help you keep within safe boundaries, but people’s reactions cannot be accurately predicted.
Also, remember that even when an advert doesn’t receive many complaints, it could still be alienating people. Often for cultural or personality reasons, some people don’t complain, but they may personally boycott your product.
Tip 5. Think about where your video will be placed
Where you place your animated video will not only impact on the adults you reach out to, but also children and minors.
An animated advert that contains content that’s regarded inappropriate for young minds can be found more offensive than a live action advert with similar content.
This is because children are drawn to these animations; therefore, they might be more likely influenced by their content.
Your use of animation in the wrong place can thus be considered highly unethical.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t use animation to advertise, but rather you need to consider boundaries, the marketing aim, and the marketing channels used.
The use of animation in marketing is rising in popularity, but with marketers striving to be unique and stand out in the clutter, avoiding crossing invisible boundaries is tough.
Through creative risks, a brand might be better noticed, but to avoid standing out for undesirable reasons, as many variables as possible should be considered when forming your marketing plan.
I hope this helps you on your way to creating your entertaining animated video!
About the author
Specializing in helping businesses boost their marketing power, Qudos Animations, led by Dr. Manroop Takhar, is a studio that produces engaging explainer videos and advertisements. Click here for information on animated explainer videos and what they can achieve. Marianna Keen is co-author and copywriter for Qudos Animations, specializing in marketing and animation.