Advertisers have long followed the notion that sex sells, but an ad that appears to depict sexual assault crossed the line back in 2012 when Belvedere vodka shared this image on social media.

The ad shows a horrified woman struggling to get out of a man’s arms, and is accompanied by the double entendre “Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly”.

You wonder how much of their own product they’d been sampling when signing this off. It hardly needs saying – sexual assault is never ok. And associating your product with it should never be on the table.

The backlash was almost instant; consumers immediately showed their outrage, with one person calling it a “horrifying emblem of rape culture”. In just an hour after posting, the adverts were removed and Belvedere posted an apology, insisting they always ‘advocate safe and responsible drinking’.

In a further attempt to show their remorse, the CEO made a personal apology: “As an expression of our regret over this matter we have made a donation to RAINN, America’s largest anti-sexual violence organization” (from Business Insider).

Things went from bad to worse however, when it turned out the image used in the advert was lifted from an online video. Alicyn Packard claimed that she was the woman featured in the advert, and that she hadn’t given permission for her image to be used. She also asserted that she wasn’t shown a copy of the ad nor approved it for publication.

What does good look like?

A swift apology and a donation to a worthy cause might have normally been enough to defuse the situation, but the lawsuit that followed meant this dragged on longer than necessary and made further news.

Other than the general advice of steering clear of jokes about sexual abuse in your adverts(!), it raises the question of how creative work gets signed off. Would your process have stopped this going through? Do you currently test with people outside of your team? For large campaigns you might justify a customer focus group, but even only showing a cross section of people in different departments in your organisation might give you a reality check.

In your creative, never use someone else’s work without their permission, and always give credit where possible. Insist that your agency follows this method too.

If you do make a mistake, responding quickly and sincerely is essential for damage limitation.

Moving forward

What’s the moral of this Bad Marketing story for you? What should Belvedere have done differently? What will you do differently in your own work?

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