— Cristiana De Lia (@CristianaDeLia) August 3, 2016
The “Brutally Refreshing” Sprite campaign was supposed to embrace Ireland’s truth-telling roots.
Since its March launch, the soda has branded its bottles with cheeky “truths” and encouraged consumers to share their pet peeves — about traffic, annoying social media behavior, the Irish summer heat.
The ads were bizarre and at times confusing, but mostly benign. Until they weren’t.
At the end of July, new ads appeared on large billboards and across the Internet, promoting new “truths” not yet seen with the Sprite campaign. And that’s when the brutality started working against them.
“She’s seen more ceilings … than Michelangelo,” read one ad.
“A 2 at 10 is a 10 at 2!” read another.
“You’re not popular … you’re easy,” said a third.
“Eyre Square, the first step on your walk of shame,” read one billboard.
As quickly as the supportive #BrutallyRefreshing tweets appeared, hundreds more calling the campaign out of touch, misogynistic and #BrutallySexist flooded them out.
In one disparaging post, the ad campaign was compared to an unwanted picture of male genitalia: “disrespectful, unimpressive, and more likely to turn women off.” Three of the controversial ads appeared on the homepage of a popular men’s news website, JOE.ie, which calls itself “the voice of Irish men at home and abroad.” Someone grabbed a screenshot, which circulated widely online.
— Grace Nuttall (@aGraceinspace) August 2, 2016
— Clairzi (@_Fhionnuisce_) August 2, 2016
— AP Corkhill (@APCDU) August 3, 2016
When the screenshot from JOE.ie was shared on Twitter by Louise McSharry, an Irish radio broadcaster with 15,000 followers, an editor with the publication responded. “Anyone who has read the site knows that this does not reflect JOE’s brand values, it shouldn’t have been there and it has since been removed,” Paddy McKenna, a JOE.ie editor, wrote.
The next day, a spokeswoman with Coca-Cola, which owns Sprite, told the BBC that the campaign had been canceled and the controversial advertisements wouldn’t appear again.
The BBC published the full statement online:
“We’re sorry for any offence caused by the #BrutallyRefreshing Sprite campaign in Ireland, which was intended to provide an edgy but humorous take on a range of situations.
“Since its introduction in Ireland, Sprite has been associated with individuality and self-expression and we have always been committed to ensuring we deliver the highest standard of advertising.
“We recognise that on this particular occasion the content did not meet this standard and we apologise. The campaign has now come to an end and the advert in question will not appear again.”
It appears the campaign didn’t start out quite so sexist, apparent by its quick demise after existing for nearly four months with little criticism, at least on social media.
A press release in March announcing the campaign’s launch, Sprite said the purpose was to encourage “people across the country to be brutally honest and share their refreshing truth.”
“In a world of vaguebookers on social media, slow walkers on the street and people on public transport feeling that their bag deserves a seat more than you do, we’re constantly surrounded by annoying truths that deserve to be called out, but rarely are. With the Brutally Refreshing campaign, Sprite is celebrating those with the guts to tell it like it is.
Sprite published videos with two Irish Snapchat celebrities who became the face of the campaign. Radio stations promoted segments encouraging audience participation. Sprite promised prizes. Brutally Refreshing sponsored-listicles emerged on JOE.ie (9 friends you definitely have on Facebook).
Then within a week, after months of mostly harmless ads, the whole campaign went sour.
Some defended the campaign online, claiming that only people outside of Ireland were offended.
If you're offended by #BrutallyRefreshing you're the type of person they're making fun of
— MetsMakeMe:D (@20154Ryan) August 5, 2016
Others were quick to draw the most obvious comparison.
— Jessie Wagenmaker (@stonecoldmilf) August 4, 2016
Some pledged allegiance to Sprite’s rivals in the clear sugar water department:
"Not all sodas." You're right, Sierra Mist would never do this.#BrutallyRefreshing
— pretty cat kitty cat (@pr3ttykittycat) August 5, 2016
— k. r. knud (@kayraeknud) August 5, 2016
— CrossedPromise (@CrossedPromise) August 4, 2016
— Sheena Flynn (@sheena4one) August 3, 2016
This incident is not the first time the Coca-Cola company has come under fire for controversial marketing strategies.
In December, it pulled an ad that showed a group of dancing white people bringing bottles of soda and a Christmas tree to a small Mexican town. Twitter called it racist and accused the company of supporting colonialism.
But Coca-Cola isn’t the only company that has been accused of crass marketing missteps. In a world of social media, where a hashtag can propel a campaign as quickly as it can bring one down, it’s much easier to anger consumers and much harder to cover up a mistake.
Those in charge of the Brutally Refreshing campaign for Sprite did not respond to a request for comment, but in the original press release for its March launch, Sprite brand manager Georgina Kendrick explained the campaign’s intent — and foreshadowed its demise:
“For century after century, the Irish have mixed wisdom with wit — because when told well, the Irish believe nothing is funnier than the truth. At Sprite, we share the same belief that honesty is the best weapon, and we’re delighted to celebrate the brutally refreshing truth — and hear what our fans come up with!”
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