3 diversity lessons from Ancestry’s recent ad backlash

The genealogy service issued a mea culpa following outrage over an ad that many said ‘romanticized’ slavery. Here are several takeaways to ensure you don’t face a similar crisis.


Ancestry.com’s PR team was recently sent scrambling after an ad caused offense instead of pulling on consumers’ heartstrings.

The New York Times reported:

The ad depicts a white man in clothing from the 1800s holding out a ring to a black woman and beckoning her to run away with him. “Abigail, we can escape to the North,” he says. “There is a place we can be together, across the border. Will you leave with me?”

The screen fades to black. “Uncover the lost chapters of your family history with Ancestry,” a voice-over says.

NBC News reported:

In the days since it began to air in the United States, critics have described it as a sanitized and inaccurate depiction of American life designed to obscure the brutality of slavery. In doing so, historians and advertising industry insiders say, the ad campaign illuminates a set of very modern, ongoing American problems with race.

Late Thursday, Ancestry pulled the ad from its YouTube channel, scuttled a TV airing schedule and late Friday offered more information about the thought processes behind the ad.

Some have called for Ancestry to ensure that its PR and marketing teams have a diverse makeup, to ensure a similar message doesn’t make it past the approval process.

Here are three diversity takeaways to consider from this crisis:

1. Focus on obtaining diversity and inclusion goals.

Brandi Boatner, social and influencer communications lead for global markets at IBM, says many communicators still treat diversity as an afterthought in campaigns, when it should be a crucial part of communications messages from the start.

Boatner says:

Any successful leader in this industry (as well as others) will tell you diversity of thought, culture and inclusion has been critical to their success. There are countless studies and research that shows diverse teams are more productive and outperform their peers.

To avoid backlash over insensitivity in your PR and marketing messages, ensure you have a team with diverse backgrounds and experiences checking your campaigns and messages before they go out.

“Diversity has got to be part of the equation when ideating a campaign,” Boatner says. “This is not negotiable, not in today’s digital, experience economy.”

2. Issue a sincere apology and learn from your mistakes.

Following its decision to pull the ad from TV and social media platforms, Ancestry issued a corporate apology, explaining its focus is to tell “important stories from history.”

Wired reported:

In a statement to WIRED, Ancestry said it had removed the video from YouTube and was in the process of pulling it from television. “Ancestry is committed to telling important stories from history,” the company said. “This ad was intended to represent one of those stories. We very much appreciate the feedback we have received and apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused.” Ancestry did not answer WIRED’s questions about the ad or about the demographic makeup of its 14 million-strong DNA database.

The company repeated the statement to reporters across publications, declined answering additional questions and has since remained silent about the crisis.

Though removing the ad and apologizing was a good first step, one journalist argued that Ancestry missed the opportunity to build trust by admitting its mistake and learning directly from it.

Campaign US’ Oliver McAteer wrote:

What really happened here? What went so wrong during the creative process? Was the pool of people working on this ad diverse enough to have foreseen the controversy it sparked (the credits suggest not)? Do the individuals responsible for this content stand by their decision with hindsight?

Questions which haven’t been answered, and should be — from the horse’s mouth.

Ancestry has nothing to gain but transparency. The shattered remains of this spot can be used as building blocks for trust. But, like so many brands, it won’t take advantage of this opportunity out of some weird fear I get angry trying to understand.

As many organizations struggle to reach diversity and inclusion goals, several insensitive marketing campaigns have sparked outrage, including product launches from Katy Perry, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada.

Each of these crises left brand managers struggling to regain consumer trust. Issuing an apology can help to repair reputational damage, but without a plan to change the mindset and behaviors that caused the crisis, your words might ring hollow. Without a clear plan for action to increase diversity and cultural understanding, PR and marketing pros are doomed to make similar mistakes.

Boatner says:

Until we as an industry truly take action (and stop talking about the diversity problem) to solve the lack of diversity within PR and continue to not have various perspectives, experiences and voices heard, organizations will continue to suffer from reputational damage due to often times insensitive and offensive campaigns.

3. Social media makes any message available to audiences across demographics—and online users can quickly point out problems.

Ancestry’s ad ran on TV for roughly two weeks before a social media user alerted followers to the video, which then became viral as people shared the video and lashed out at it.

The New York Times reported:

The ad aired on television stations in Utah early this month, but it drew a flurry of criticism on social media on Thursday after it was discovered on YouTube. Many critics said it whitewashed the nature of sexual relations between white men and black women during that time period.

This crisis underlines social media’s ability to quickly fan the flames of outrage, but it also serves to remind communicators to always keep their audiences in mind. For Ancestry, these include ancestors of slaves that were offended and even hurt by what many called the “whitewashing” and “romanticizing” of slavery in the United States.

Even if a particular PR or marketing message or piece of content isn’t geared to a particular audience or demographic, keep in mind that social media can make anything far-reaching and global, which means your message can easily end up in front of other audiences.

Boatner says:

We as communicators and storytellers need to understand our target audience, customers and the marketplace first before we start campaign planning. In today’s society we can no longer make assumptions about culture, history, groups or individuals.

Additionally, social media will be the first to address these false assumptions and “put a brand on blast” for being “diver-ish” and tone deaf when it comes to messages shared across platforms. Social platforms enable brands to get real-time instant feedback and drive rapid iterations of messaging and execution. Social media is an excellent lesson in cultural anthropology where an organization’s social channels is a direct reflection of their brand and culture.

What additional takeaways would you add to this list, PR Daily readers?

(Image via)


2 Responses to “3 diversity lessons from Ancestry’s recent ad backlash”

    Kaylynn W. says:

    I think that this story about Ancestry provides a great lesson for those who are studying Crisis Communication such as myself. When posting an advertisement such as this one, you have to be aware that it may be likely to receive backlash. I think that when developing the ad, the marketing team should examine each possible problem that it might face and think if it aligns with the ethics of the company. Great article!

    Noah Moore says:

    In almost every industry, but even more so in the PR industry, diversity is a consistent force that is needed to be implemented for success. I think you address the way that PR comes into play in this regard well in your piece about Ancestry’s recent ad backlash. Though I was unaware of the ad, I am of the staunch belief that it was made from the lens of a white person, thus propelling it to inaccuracy. That is why I think your first point is the most prevalent in that diversity is needed in the industry. It is not only important for inclusion, but also to create a way to catch such controversies from occurring. The last two points are also important, but more pertinent to PR as a whole. Our industry can be used to correct mistakes, but fixing them at their root is an industry problem that needs more self-evaluation.

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