Anatomy of a Marketing Gaffe: What We Can Learn from BIC’s Failed “Look Like a Girl” Ad

Modern Marketing


A popular social media company throws a frat-themed party following allegations of a misogynistic company culture. A major PR firm calls a celebrity’s suicide a publicity “opportunity” for mental health groups. Now, BIC—best known for its writing utensils, but also a global maker of lighters, razors, and more—offends over half of the world’s population with its latest advertisement in South Africa.

The ad in question encourages consumers to “Look like a girl. Act like a lady. Think like a man. Work like a boss”. I can get behind the last sentence, but the rest? The 1950s called; they want their gender roles back.


This was the sentiment of the backlash once the post went viral. When it appeared on the company’s Facebook page, the graphic was meant to show support for South Africa’s National Women’s Day. Benign enough, but as the song goes, “The road to (marketing) hell is paved with good intentions”.

BIC subsequently issued two apologies. The first explained that it had adopted the tagline from a “women in business” blog. But people weren’t buying it. They thought BIC was just making excuses. So, the company deleted the post and issued a second, apologizing again and thanking everyone for their feedback.

*Face palm* Every time a gaffe like this happens, a marketer somewhere reaches for a bottle of wine and crawls under his or her desk. For this marketer, after I’d clawed my way back into my chair and scrubbed away at my merlot teeth, I’d take a step back and say “OK, this happened. No going back in time now. So, what can we learn from it?”

Hmm…let’s see…

1. Always Soft-Sound Your Target Audience

This was a Facebook post instead of a full-blown campaign, so chances are the decision to create the image came down to one or two members of the company’s social media team. That said, it never hurts to “poll the audience”, so to speak. Do other members of your marketing team find your idea funny? Are you running the risk of offending people? In this case, I’m willing to bet that at least one of BIC’s marketers had a mother/daughter/sister/aunt/niece/stepdaughter/life partner/roommate/next door neighbor/accountant/lawyer who could have told them that this wasn’t the best approach.

You can’t fool-proof every plan, but it’s important to take the time to do the due diligence, whether that’s asking around the office or conducting formal market research. Should something tank, at least you’ll have the data to back up why you made the decision in the first place.

2. Gaffe Happens

Like flat tires and flight delays, marketing gaffes are going to happen. It’s a part of the job. We try our best, but even our most well-meaning campaigns can backfire. Show me the marketer who hasn’t accidentally sent out an email campaign with a broken link, and I’ll show you Donald Trump having a good hair day (HINT: it doesn’t exist). You can do what you can to safeguard against the worst-case scenarios, but mistakes happen. What we can learn here is that it’s about how you recover from them that makes all the difference.

3. You’re Only as Good as Your Worst Campaign

This is a bit misleading. I know you can do better, you know you can do better, so why does everyone keep pointing back to that time that you were at your worst?

For BIC, its most recent fumble has brought up its 2012 “BIC for Her” line, which received similar criticism. That was a fluke, but with the latest post, the marketing community has accused the company of having a “problem” communicating with women. Ouch.

Thanks to the internet, your last misstep is just a Google search away. So, marketers, be forewarned! (Enter scary movie scene music here). Learn from your mistakes and avoid being labeled as a #marketingfail.

4. Apologize the Right Way

Ah, the art of the apology—it is a delicate mix of timing and the right message. Apologize too quickly, and you run the risk of not thinking through what you’re actually communicating. Wait too long and you could have the best apology in the world and still get dragged through the mud…or be scrutinized for taking too long to make the apology in the first place.

The former is what happened to BIC, and the fact that they erased their first apology peeved consumers further. Furthermore, it felt as if the company was making excuses. Sure, whoever had created or approved the graphic grabbed the slogan from somewhere else, but that didn’t make it OK.

Should you find yourself in a similar situation, it is important to remember that this apology isn’t just coming from an individual; it is the whole company that is being held accountable. Consumers don’t appreciate corporate excuses. Take the time to acknowledge the situation, think through your response, and consult your internal or external public relations team for guidance and constructing the right message.

What else can we learn from the BIC marketing gaffe? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!