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Were Waitrose ducking racist?

Updated: May 14

This time last week I was invited to speak to Nick Ferrari on LBC about the latest marketing faux pas by a major brand. This time it was Waitrose and the offending item was some chocolate ducks available just in time for Easter. For those who haven’t seen them, there was a brown duck labelled crispy, a white duck labelled fluffy and a black duck (with pink speckles) labelled ugly.

True to form, someone called out the labelling on Twitter, wondering why the term ugly fell upon the black duck. It’s worth reading through that tweet (which was hardly featured by media outlets and has now been deleted / protected) and some of the replies to it to get a better sense of how little the teacup was for this particular media storm.

With no explanation about the nursery rhyme, our age of outrage unfolded true to form, with the retailer issuing a suitably corporate statement and pulling the ducks from shelves:

"We are very sorry for any upset caused by the name of this product, it was absolutely not our intention to cause any offence.

"We removed the product from sale several weeks ago while we changed the labelling and our ducklings are now back on sale."

Mr Ferrari asked me, repeatedly, if I thought the ducks were racist. Did I - a 31-year-old man - think that some chocolate ducks on the shelves of a middle class supermarket were racist? To be goaded into a yes would have been too easy, so I maintained a calm no.

I asked Cyndi Anafo, Non-Executive Director Peckham Palms about what she thought of the whole thing:

“Did someone at Waitrose wake up one day and say ‘Do you know what? I want to cause offence to a continually marginalised group in the most mind boggling way possible?’ - I doubt it. But the fact it potentially did cause offence enough for the brand to react highlighted that a lack of genuine diverse decision making and presence in the creative process, which allowed for this glaring faux pax to happen. This therefore still taps into the systemic aspect of racism that far more - otherwise decent - human beings are often guilty of practicing unintentionally.”

In my opinion the response to the whole episode will be written in marketing case studies in years to come, featuring alongside Kendall Jenner selling Pepsi on behalf of Martin Luther King and H&M thinking a black kid should be marketed as the coolest monkey in the jungle.

We don’t need any more gurus

You don’t have to be a social media ‘guru’, ‘ninja’, or some other buzzword to know that in today’s fake news climate, anything can be misinterpreted. All it takes is a slightly grainy photo, a tweet, and a brand’s reputation is prime for the taking.

So why Waitrose thought it was a good idea to choose the word ugly for the darkest duck could be put down to a simple, harmless mistake. However, with new information about Britain’s empire, and its insidious race problems bubbling to the headlines on a daily basis, is it any wonder that a group - where 32% feel underrepresented in ads - is going to jump on the opportunity to have their voice heard? (Questions still remain in my head about whether it was a black person who called it out - if it wasn’t then it warrants a whole separate post that I don’t feel qualified to write).

The sad truth is, was there a single person of colour within the entire process from the product coming out to the media response that could have called it out before it hit the headlines?

After some cursory media and social media analysis it appears that that’s where the majority of the heckling was coming from - do ducks have race? The shortcut answer is that they don’t, however, using a dated cultural reference is where the problem may lie. Both the era and the individual proved problematic and were indeed racist. At the time (and in some parts of the world today) being white or fair was perceived as the ultimate beauty. This is only starting to change today, with the force of Twitter driving a reappraisal of beauty standards. What’s more, neither crispy nor fluffy are mentioned in the poem, so what was the need for ugly?

We need a different approach

The more I looked into it, the more I saw that the headlines weren’t about the product itself. It was about Waitrose’s decision to pull them from the shelves. ‘Political Correctness gone wrong!” cries the Red Tops. Having worked in frantic, corporate and majority white press offices and crisis communications situations I am all too aware of how that decision came to be made. To not feel guilty of accusations of racism is the path of least resistance and ‘it will be tomorrow’s chip wrapper’ would have meant it was easier to try and make it go away, then to open up a Pandora’s Box of issues related to race.

Or is it? Would it not have been smarter for Waitrose to call out the claims, and insist that as ducks have no race, it may actually have been racist to claim the product was racist in the first place? Again, having a person of colour or a press office that was more representative of society could have helped to shape the response, and exploring how and why it came to be would have shown some courage in tackling one of the biggest inequalities British society faces today. If there was a person of colour there, were they empowered to speak up and speak out?

It’s very easy to watch from the sidelines and heckle, and it’s even easier for the media to fill column inches and airtime on what - on the surface at least - appear to be trivial matters. But deeper down, what happened to Waitrose last week reveals a turning of the tide within marketing, advertising and communications. We know advertising is not diverse, we see from recent CIPR data that PR is becoming less diverse, so should we be surprised that tone deaf products and campaigns keep hitting our shelves and our newsfeeds?

We launched the Wokeshop to offer a new way - as a service for brands marketers to stop sleepwalking into these sorts of reputation crises. We bring the right people around the table to help navigate how campaigns will be perceived today as part of our bid to make the industry more representative of the society we live in. All it would have taken was an a more diverse set of people around the Waitrose table, and things could have gone swimmingly for those little duckies.


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