All Articles Marketing Social Media Lessons from Samsung's ad controversy

Lessons from Samsung’s ad controversy

Samsung's ad showing a woman running at night prompted a social media controversy. The brand has apologized. What can others learn?

5 min read

Social Media

A screenshot of the Samsung ad

Samsung US / YouTube

Samsung found itself apologizing this week after its most recent ad campaign sparked controversy.

As part of its global “Night Owls” campaign, Samsung released a 60-second spot that shows a woman running alone along city streets at 2 a.m. while wearing earbuds.

“I run on a different schedule,” the voiceover says, “Mine.”

The only problem: Many of the people who watched the ad said it ignores the safety concerns that would keep many urban women from strapping on their sneakers in the middle of the night.

Various viral Twitter threads, including this one, show women’s incredulous reactions, with one user commenting, “The writers of that ad have clearly never even met a woman.”

Some Twitter users were quick to point to an Adweek article from earlier this month that featured quotes only from men and credited an almost all-male team from the agency.

Ogilvy, which created the campaign, did not respond to requests for comment. Samsung did issue a statement, saying, “We apologize for how this may have been received. ​​The “Night Owls” campaign was designed with a positive message in mind: to celebrate individuality and freedom to exercise at all hours.” The brand added that the campaign didn’t intend to “be insensitive to ongoing conversations around women’s safety.” 

As yet another brand faces controversy, marketers weighed in on what others can learn from this incident.

Ads “through the male lens”

“This video begs for a disclaimer saying something like ‘professional actor on a closed course, do not attempt,'” said Erica Fite, founding partner and co-chief creative officer at Fancy. “Almost all women have experienced harassment while running no matter what time of day and the chances of that becoming a violent threat are much more likely when alone in the dark. I can attest to this personally, having been severely attacked while exercising just as the daylight disappeared.”

Fite said it’s good that brands are celebrating women and encouraging them to be independent and brave, but that this advice doesn’t make sense when it ignores realities about their lives.

Dipanjan Chatterjee, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, agreed, saying the marketers should have anticipated the context in which their ad would be received.

“When advertising is tone deaf, it is usually because the creators have no sense of context for their message,” Chatterjee said. “That is only too clear in this Samsung ad about a woman who runs at a time when it simply is not a realistic or safe activity for most women.”

Cindy Gallop, consultant and founder and CEO of MakeLoveNotPorn, noted the ad is an example of a big problem in advertising. 

“Women are the primary target of all advertising — because we are the primary purchasers of everything,” Gallop explained. “That’s why it’s utterly ludicrous that the advertising industry is male-dominated, especially in the creative department — because we are sold to all the time through the male lens.” 

What Samsung can do now

Major brands are likely to face controversy from time to time. For Samsung, this is an opportunity to highlight its efforts to diversify its staff or to make a promise to include more women in its campaign strategy moving forward.

“Every brand and client — like Samsung — should mandate that their ads are overseen by women, created by women, approved by women, cast by women, directed by women, photographed by women, and announce that they will not give their business to any agency where the leadership team, the creatives and the creative decision-makers are all male,” Gallop said. 

Fite said Samsung could also support a social organization working to address safety issues women face, such as Reclaim the Streets.

Chatterjee added that while much of the criticism came on social media, the brand risks isolating its consumers and workers if it doesn’t take action.

“Brands that are cancelled on social media are seldom cancelled in real life,” said Chatterjee, noting, “While there is little short-term damage done to brands from the news cycle, there is a longer term perceptual issue with customers and employees if this is endemic and a deeper problem than just a gaffe.”

Advertisers, be ready for controversy

Brands can be proactive in developing strategies around how they would react if they faced social media controversy such as this. For example, a brand may have a policy that they will apologize and take rectifying action when they offend specific groups to ensure that uncomfortable moments aren’t swept under the rug.

“In a world where consumers are tethered to social media and are not shy about expressing any and every sentiment on it, there is bound to be chatter and brands must anticipate this and plan for it,” Chatterjee said.

Diversifying staff and ensuring that more women and people of color are involved in decision-making is also a great way to protect oneself against such mistakes, Gallop noted.

“Every brand and client — like Samsung — should take a long hard look at themselves and ensure that their own leadership, decision-makers and team are predominantly female,” Gallop said.

For more marketing insights, subscribe to our free newsletter.