Last time I told you a light-hearted story about how mirror neurons and the Magic Mirror Principle led to a simple case of buyer’s remorse. As a marketer I cautioned you to be careful when you use the mirror to reach your audience, and told you how the mirror can be shattered.

Shattering isn’t the only thing to be concerned about when you use this powerful tool. You also have to understand that what you’re audience sees in the mirror isn’t always what you want them to see.

In 2007 there was a public service campaign in Milan aimed at discouraging anorexia among young fashion models. The company that ran the campaign (the fashion label Nolita) was known for edgy ad campaigns. But the brand never attracted major attention until this campaign was run. Unfortunately they didn’t’ get the attention they wanted.

Nolita’s campaign featured a 27-year old woman with anorexia (Isabelle Caro, now deceased). She weighed 68 pounds and literally looked like someone who had starved herself to the point of death. Above her head was the tagline “No. Anorexia.”

The images are disturbing, to say the least. (Note: I considered posting the images here, but they are very disturbing so I decided not to. If you would like to see the campaign, you can Google “Nolita” +anorexia.) The photographer said he wanted to show everyone the reality of the illness often caused by stereotypes imposed by fashion world. To the general public it did just that. People were repulsed by the images and saw the horror the ad was meant to portray.

Unfortunately, it didn’t have the same effect on the people it was trying to influence. A couple posts ago I told you how cigarette warnings, no matter how gruesome, stimulate cravings in smokers because it reminds them of their addiction. Similarly, these warnings did the opposite of what they are supposed to do too.

When anorexics looked at the ads, their mirror neurons told them, “You look so skinny – I want to be like you.” They weren’t repulsed by the model. They became envious and wanted to be even thinner than she was. In the areas where the ads ran, incidents of women being hospitalized for anorexia-related issues skyrocketed. While I don’t have the numbers, it’s a good guess many of them died.

The moral of the story: I frequently tell people, “It’s impossible to step outside of yourself and think like your audience.” This is never more important than when you’re dealing with life and death issues. Nolita was trying to do a good thing, but because they couldn’t think like a woman with anorexia, they weren’t able to see what their target saw. If they had – maybe they would have shown an anorexic woman on life support, her grieving family; images that convey the losses and hardships – rather than the distorted ideal these women held in their minds.

Granted, hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to find faults after the damage is done. As marketers, what we can do is learn from this type of tragedy. It’s our duty to explore every possible angle before we put a message out to the general public. We have to see what they see or we run the risk of destroying what we set out to do.

That was pretty heavy. Next time I promise I’ll post on a lighter topic.

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