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When Cadbury, Naomi Campbell and Racism Collided


by Kenneth Rudich

In an earlier post about marketing communications titled, “Value Chain Marketing-A Primer to Effective Communications,” we briefly discussed the concept of noise in communications.  Noise pertains to the quality of the connection – or lack thereof — that exists between the sender of a message and the receiver of it.

Noise can disrupt the communications process and foil the possibility for a clean exchange to occur.  By clean exchange, I mean the receiver’s perception of the message corresponds with the sender’s intent.

There are three categories of noise that can blemish the communications process.  They are:

  • Physical noise
  • Semantic noise
  • Internal noise

Of particular interest to us for this post is the concept of semantic noise.  It can be defined as a conflict between the sender and the receiver in misunderstanding the meaning of words or images.

semantic noise in marketing

A good example of semantic noise in marketing – or rather, how semantic noise can get a brand into trouble – recently reared itself with the unveiling of an advertisement in England designed to promote Cadbury’s new Bliss chocolate bar.

You can see the print advertisement here.  It has a headline at the top that reads, “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town,” followed by an image of the packaged candy sitting atop a mound of diamonds.

According to a report by the Independent, a UK newspaper, the ad has infuriated famous supermodel Naomi Campbell, and it has sparked accusations of racism from black rights groups.

If you sit back and think about it for a moment, it’s hard to imagine that Cadbury, owned by Kraft Foods, ever intended to start a big flap with an ad conceived to promote a product under its respected brand name. 

So what went wrong?  Why did it blow up?  The answer has to do with semantic noise.

when clever trumps KISS

For starters, it’s an inherently risky ad.  Instead of following the KISS rule – Keep It Simple, Stupid — they were obviously reaching for clever.  As a result, there’s a lot going on within the context of the ad, and much of it is cloaked in innuendo, which is subject to interpretation, which is prone to noise…semantic noise.

As you may be aware, Naomi Campbell is black.  On top of that, the press has issued past reports about her displaying temper tantrums that fit with the description of a diva, and she allegedly had a questionable association with a messy diamond venture in Africa, known as blood diamonds.

These points merit mention because the Naomi referred to in the Cadbury ad could arguably be anyone with that name.  After all, Naomi Campbell is not pictured in it.  It also could be nobody in real life, as in a fictitious character.  However, the additional information – the diamonds and diva reference — suggests a certain and specific Naomi, even if only by implication.

Given these circumstances, it’s quite understandable Naomi Campbell might have found the ad more than a little unflattering — and that perhaps her name was used without due consultation.

the unintended marketing message

But if that’s all there was to the ad – just a fun little poke at a celebrity supermodel – then it probably would not have drawn anything more than perhaps a slight chuckle.  This, no doubt, is what Cadbury intended.

The bigger problem, it turns out, is a cultural issue with the way the word “Chocolate” is used in England.  Over there, brown-skinned people perceive this word as offensive.  It is a derogatory term used toward African, Caribbean, Indian and Arab immigrants, especially children.  “Chocolate Drop” or the shortened form “Chocko” is often used as a racial taunt on the playground.  It also is a term for a brown-skinned tart or prostitute.

Though Cadbury didn’t explicitly say the Naomi in the ad was Naomi Campbell, nor did they characterize her as being chocolate – remember, they dubbed her a diva – the fact that it’s a chocolate bar, along with her being black, apparently was enough to touch a raw nerve with some people.  They connected the dots in a manner that made it look racist to them, and they publicly voiced their grievance.  The ad suddenly mutated from a clever little jab aimed at one person to a show of disrespect for an entire group.

That’s when Cadbury, Naomi Campbell and racism collided together.

According to a Kraft’s spokesperson, all billboards featuring the ad have been taken down since.

marketing communications sensitivity

This story illustrates how easily semantic noise can twist a seemingly clever message – at least clever to some — into a mangled piece of marketing communication.

It also demonstrates the importance of fleshing out cultural differences between groups and regions that could possibly become a catalyst for producing such noise. 

The damage from even a small lapse in sensitivity can be awful hard to undo.  If your business has or seeks a diverse customer base, then either be safe and rely on KISS, or test a clever but perhaps riskier promotion on different types of people before rolling it out.   


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