Two US blockbusters, Barbie and Oppenheimer both released on July 21, 2023 and before the films premiered, the world was ablaze with talk of a can’t-miss-double-feature.
The mania of watching both movies back-to-back, with their obviously clashing themes and tones, gave the movie industry a much-needed boost. The official social media account for Warner Brothers Studios US hopped on the trend, too, and showed support for fan-made memes of Barbie with an atomic bomb explosion in the background.
In Japan, the gesture was less appreciated. The peak of the Barbenheimer trend lined up with the 78th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
#noBarbehheimer quickly started trending on Japanese X (formerly known as Twitter), leading the Japanese subsidiary of Warner Bros. to issue an apology for the US marketing team’s questionable choice.
Social media marketing is tricky business, and this incident is a perfect lesson in the importance of cross-cultural communication within the industry.
Do Your Market Research
While humor is an easy way to relate to your audience, it’s also difficult to translate across language and culture. What you consider lighthearted fun can be considered bad taste—or even plain insulting—in another.
That’s exactly what happened to the team at Warner Bros.
We may be several generations-removed from the attacks on Japan that ended WWII, but this historical tragedy is marked every year with a solemn ceremony in Japan.
It’s not hard to see why the Barbenheimer memes fell so flat.
Place is one of the four P’s of marketing, but it doesn’t just refer to geographic. The cultural background and customs of your target audience is just as—if not more—important
And now that social media is breaking down cultural borders like never before, it’s essential to keep up with culturally sensitive material.
Don’t Make Assumptions
The issue with the Barbenheimer meme was two-fold.
While double features are more common in the US, in Japan, the practice is not well known. Going to see two movies back-to-back is rare, and most Japanese people didn’t understand why the two movies were being marketed together at all.
Even if something is obvious to you, take a step back and ask yourself if everyone will understand the message you want to convey.
Ask for a second (or even third) opinion from someone outside your cultural bubble. While an individual cannot speak for everyone in a certain culture or community, it’ll give you a quick litmus test on whether to scrap the idea altogether.
The Barbie doll in Japan doesn’t have as strong of a cultural presence as in other countries, so rather than playing around with internet humor, perhaps promoting the brand would have been a better avenue.
The lack of cultural context, along with the atomic-inspired Barbenheimer meme, contributed to confusion about the message of the Barbie movie in Japan.
So while the Barbie movie is breaking ticket sale records across the globe, the response in over in Japan has been lukewarm.
Think Before You Post
Companies are feeling the pressure to stay relevant, and it can be hard to know which trend to jump on, and which one to let pass you by.
There will always be naysayers, especially for big brands like Barbie, but there’s a difference between a demographic mismatch and straight up offensive messaging.
If you feel like you may be skirting the edge, ask yourself:
- Who does this appeal to?
- Who could this offend, and why?
- Are we willing to take that risk?
Marketing in a New Age
The internet has brought the world together for decades, but some companies are still struggling to make their marketing inclusive..
We all have cognitive biases, but being able to identify those blind spots or gaps in education is important in the continual strive to be better. If your marketing comes at the expense of someone else, perhaps it’s worth rethinking the strategy.