The stage was set to accommodate a huge elephant in the room during last Sunday’s Academy Awards. And that elephant was white, SO white, in fact.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the controversy, the Academy’s voting members failing to nominate anyone of color in the top acting categories for the second year in a row; spawning celebrity boycotts, round the clock media discussions and the mammoth #OscarsSoWhite social media movement.

It didn’t take long for the Academy to promise to make the ‘so white’ controversy right by changing the makeup of its voting body. But the firestorm wasn’t going to blow over in the few months before show time. So what was Hollywood’s most prestigious brand to do? With the announcement that no-holds-barred comedian Chris Rock would be hosting, it was evident the Academy had something up its sleeve.

And the winner was…

… Self-deprecation.

Making fun of itself may not be the Academy’s usual style, but on the heels of its biggest backlash to date, it decided to give it a leading role in the show. And it’s not a far-fetched concept in today’s current landscape. Consumers, especially “ad agnostic” millennials, are by-in-large skeptical of brands. They tend to lend loyalty to brands that appear transparent and align with their core values. As a result, many brands are buying into self-deprecation to humanize consumer’s brand experience.

When a brand pokes fun at its flaws, it allows it to bare its soul without seeming contrived. The American Marketing Association says the result is consumers viewing it as down-to-earth and relatable, thereby creating a more meaningful bond.

One of the best examples recently is Arby’s farewell tribute to Jon Stewart; a longtime, outspoken critic of the fast-food joint.

Arby’s used Stewart’s disparaging remarks against it, to ultimately boost its brand perception. Brilliance! Arby’s ad was perfectly bold, funny and irreverent while understanding the significance of the moment. And it struck a chord, according to social media. Its mentions on twitter spiked 564% during  Jon’s “The Daily Show” finale alone. It also had staying power, with 7,926 twitter mentions in the 13 hours following the show. It clearly showcases the potential for self-deprecation in marketing; own your flaws and negative feedback and win back, or over, consumers.

IKEA works the self-deprecation strategy pretty well, too. The trendy furniture store is known for being chic-cheap, but its products are also known for being notoriously hard to assemble. Well, IKEA has flipped the script on its reputation, using it to its ADvantage.



But will poking fun at one’s own flaws work for every brand? According to Andy Beal, CEO of the social media monitoring and analytics firm, Trackur; self-deprecation as a marketing ploy only works if a brand has a generally accepted flaw that isn’t all that bad. “You have to be able to acknowledge it, but at the same time feel comfortable that your own self-admission won’t hurt your brand.”

Beal also notes that once a brand starts poking fun of itself, consumers are generally more willing to believe its positive claims, and overall motives, are on the up-and-up. However, that brand loyalty only lasts in the short term. “At some point, you have to have a product or service that can stand on something of merit and value.”

Let’s circle back to the Academy Awards and the debate about the effectiveness of its show strategy. Only 34 million viewers (she says, facetiously) watched the 2016 Oscars, its lowest ratings in 8 years. That’s despite a large number of people admittedly dialed in just to see Leonardo DiCaprio win his first Academy Award. African-American viewership was only down 2% from 2015, meaning they weren’t boycotting. So, the question becomes; did the self-deprecation act bomb?

Obviously, some parts failed… miserably! While there’s no way to say for sure whether all the “so white” bits and jabs added up to the third lowest-rated Oscars in history, many agree the Academy broke a cardinal rule by dipping its toe in the deep end one too many times. CEO of Zenzi Marketing, Sarah Hardwick, explains it’s essential a brand know its audiences before proceeding with a tool like self-deprecation. “If it’s not funny or crosses the line between funny and offensive, it can backfire.”

So, self-deprecation isn’t necessarily a sure bet, but it is a pretty good one. If you’re contemplating it as brand marketing strategy, here is your cheat sheet.

  • Only poke fun at generally accepted flaws (not perceived) that aren’t all that bad. If it’s too big or bad, it will further hurt a brand’s credibility.
  • The joke/jokes must be funny, not offensive, or it will backfire.
  • A brand’s products or services must have long-term merit because self-deprecation buzz will wear off.
  • Be wary of being pigeonholed. The commercialized joke can become a stamp that brands can’t shake. So tread carefully.

Bottom line – when the joke’s on you, it really can pay to laugh at yourself!


Author: Reina Carbetta

Comments are closed.