It was another month full of brands dealing with (or, in some cases, avoiding dealing with) reputational crises. Here are three that caught our attention.

When apologies come far too late

Global consumer goods company, Reckitt Benckiser, owns several household brand names. It’s also sold a humidifier disinfectant in South Korea. The disinfectant, Oxy Ssak Ssak, contained Polyhexamethylene guanidine (a chemical that can be fatal to breathe) between 2001 and 2011.

It’s been alleged that a German expert warned the company about the toxicity of the chemical back in the early 2000’s, but apparently nothing was done. The disinfectant has been linked to the deaths of around 100 people in South Korea, and 500 people have registered claims against the company after falling ill.

On 2nd May, Ataur Safdar, head of Reckitt Benckiser’s Korean division, held a press conference to apologise. This represented the first time that the company had apologised in 15 years. It’s understandable that the victims and relatives who were in attendance were angry about the issue.

During the press conference, Mr Safdar found himself surrounded by angry people, one of whom slapped him as he attempted to reiterate his apology. There are now growing calls for a boycott of the business.

Despite withdrawing the product in 2011, and rebranding its South Korea business from Oxy to Reckitt Benckiser in 2014, this is one crisis that won’t just fade away. It’s not about quelling calls for a boycott, or tackling social media criticism. It’s a criminal investigation involving the deaths of many people, and it’s something that the business itself admits should have been apologised for a long time ago.

Calvin Klein’s controversial content

There are certain actions you only do if you actually want to court as much controversy as possible. Calvin Klein displayed one of these things on 9th May when it chose to post a photo to Instagram which had the photographer taking an ‘up-skirt’ shot of the young model. Part of its #mycalvins campaign, it was paired with the words “I flash #mycalvins”.

Social channels buzzed with people infuriated at the sexualised image. By 12th May, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation had called for the post to be removed and the brand to apologise. It said:

“Once again, Calvin Klein has used a depiction of sexual harassment or assault in its advertisements.”

Calvin Klein didn’t respond. Instead, four days later, the model in the picture released her own comments on the furore:

“I love this photo @harleyweir took of me. All this discussion about it makes me think about how alienated and scared some people are to the female human body. Be and love yourself and your sexuality #girlpower.”

Oh, wait, CK did respond, it posted this image, which some saw as a dig at its detractors:


When a brand bases most of its marketing around causing controversy, a social media storm – including annoying special interest groups – is often exactly what they want to happen. The question is, does this behaviour alienate or endear people to the brand? Perhaps some brands just don’t care.

Qiaobi’s non-apology apology

May also saw a Chinese laundry detergent brand cause controversy with an advert that – bizarrely – used race to illustrate how “effective” the product was. An Asian woman was shown placing laundry detergent on a black man, whereupon he climbed into the washing machine and emerged (one presumes after a wash cycle) as an Asian man.

The advert for Qiaobi laundry detergent quickly spread across the internet, rightfully receiving the scorn that it deserved.

The brand responded to the outcry, thus:

“Because of the spread of the advert and over-interpretation of public opinion it has hurt people of African descent. We hereby apologize and hope internet users and media do not over-interpret it.”

An employee was later quoted as saying that foreign media was “too sensitive”.

In this case, it’s less to do with a brand deliberately courting controversy, and more about one that just thinks people are wrong. Of course, non-apology apologies are not the way to go when handling a crisis, but whether you can expect any better from a brand that would produce and support such an advert is debatable.

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