How 7-Eleven Taiwan turned an Acclaimed Ad Campaign into a PR Disaster

7-Eleven had everything going for it in Taiwan.

It is the dominant and indispensable retail presence here. The Taiwanese do everything in 7-Eleven - buy groceries, pay bills, transfer money, book tickets, refill cellphone credit, get surgeries... (ok not really, but maybe one day...) 

The chain also has a history of making creative and popular commercials. And the latest series - titled Seven Lessons About Single Life - is arguably its best.

The series' seven episodes explore the intricate emotional worlds of single urbanites - a growing segment of the Taiwanese population and 7-Eleven's most important client base.

7LessonsSingleLife.jpg

The episodes are well-written, beautifully-executed and nuanced in its depiction of single life in a big city - full of loneliness and heartbreak but also excitement and romance.

In the ads, the convenience chain is omnipresent as a sanctuary for these characters.

The series has drawn praise from critics, and recently won Bronze at the 2015 Spikes Asia Awards.

But when 7-Eleven unveiled the sixth episode in early November 2015, everything changed.

Within 24 hours, it had provoked so much angry backlash on all social networks and media platforms, that 7-Eleven apologized and announced that it would withdraw the ad and re-shoot the 6th episode.

What happened? 

How did an acclaimed ad campaign turn into a full-on PR disaster, literally overnight?

The Ad

Well, here's the ad - impossible to erase in this day and age.

If you don't speak Chinese, here's the gist: 

  • It's about a guy who seems to exist for the sole purpose of serving his girlfriend. She'd call him at all hours of the day, and he'd immediately rush out to fulfil her orders (at the local 7-Eleven. Where else?).
  • The bizarre part? This continues even AFTER they'd broken up. The girl continued asking him to serve her, such as buying concert tickets for her and her new boyfriend.
  • A 7-Eleven employee sees it all and asks: "Why don't you say no?" But the guy smiled blissfully and said: "Who says you can't do things for her even after the breakup?"

The ad ends with the message: If she's happy, I'm happy.

The Backlash

The public backlash came fast and hard - and from both sexes.

Most viewers said the ad made them uncomfortable. A hurricane of outrage hit 7-Eleven Taiwan's Facebook page, accusing the company of encouraging women to use men like instruments. The male lead was called a "useless tool", while the female lead was called [the B word] for manipulating the guy.

Many commenters even snapped: "Makes sense. It's exactly what 7-Eleven does to its employees! It treats them like tools and not human beings."

Some viewers were so angered by this, they declared a boycott against the chain.

It turned into such a PR disaster, a company spokeswoman started wailing when reporters asked her about the commercial. And within 24 hours, the ad was pulled, and 7-Eleven announced it'd redo the 6th episode with a backup script.

The Culprit

Essentially, 7-Eleven took a belief that most people despised - that men should be happy to serve women unconditionally - and made it its central message.

But how could this have happened? Were company executives so out of touch with society as to not have seen it coming? Did they not run the ad by test audiences?

As netizens were roasting the company, a revelation emerged from someone who was involved in the ad's production process.

Posting anonymously as Facebook user "150", the person revealed that, during the process to review and approve the ad, the male staff collectively expressed discomfort with the ad and its key message.

The female executives, however, overrode their objections. They believed that the subservient guy represented what a good man should be.

The ad went public, and the rest is history.

 "I asked you to buy TWO, not one - it's for me and my new boyfriend."

"I asked you to buy TWO, not one - it's for me and my new boyfriend."

And there you have it: a small set of mainly female executives wrongly assumed that the rest of society agreed with their views.

To be fair, there are people who share this view. There are women who believe that their beauty (and other virtues) warrant unconditional pampering by guys. And it's not uncommon in Taiwan to see beautiful women striding the streets with a guy trailing in their wind, carrying the ladies' purses, shopping bags and unfinished food.

It's possible that the female executives are surrounded by people who honestly believe this is how things should be.

Where they erred was in assuming that most Taiwanese agreed with them. And they paid a steep price for this false assumption.

The Lesson

At this point, the lesson ought to be incredibly obvious. And yet it's one that even the most established companies, governments and experts often ignore:

Know your audience.

Make the effort to get to know them. Always test your message with sample audiences. And never, ever, EVER just assume that they share your beliefs and values.

You may say: "I'm fine. I've been doing this for 40 years. I know my audiences better than they know themselves! There's no need to verify..."

You may be right.

But IF you are wrong...

There could be a steep price to be paid.

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