In a world full of billboards, commercials, pop-up ads, and native advertising, modern consumers are subjected to more than 3,000 ads and promotional materials every day. And for many marketers, having an advertisement go viral across the country is a dream come true.
Of course, not all viral attention is positive.
Case in point: this billboard paid for by the Washington State Department of Health’s drug prevention campaign:
This anti-marijuana billboard in Yakima was paid for by the WA Department of Health. Some find it, well, offensive. pic.twitter.com/NbnoJ5Cw7f
— Mike Faulk (@Mike_Faulk) July 25, 2017
After a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter tweeted a photo of the billboard, the picture quickly went viral, leading to a mixture of amusement, outrage, and confusion. Now, after the public backlash, the Washington State Department of Health has formally apologized for the billboard and promised to have it removed.
Critics say that the billboard, which read, “We don’t need pot to have fun. We’re Hispanics… We’re cool by default,” implied that Hispanic teens are especially likely to smoke marijuana.
In an apology posted on Twitter on July 25, the department wrote, “Our prevention billboard has offended some & we’re sorry. We’re taking steps to remove it as soon as possible.”
However, a spokesperson for the department told Vox that they extensively tested the ad in focus groups with Hispanic residents of Washington’s Yakima Valley, and they received no indications that the anti-drug billboard would be offensive.
“At no point during our testing did we hear any feedback that indicated this message may offend anyone,” the spokesperson said to Vox. “Actually, we were excited to learn youth found this message empowering and most felt a sense of heightened pride in their Hispanic heritage. We certainly don’t want to offend people, and our overall goal is to be effective in reaching specific people with information that resonates with them.”
At Vox, Hispanic reporter German Lopez described the ad “as simplistic at best and offensive at worst.” Lopez also raised another interesting point: the ad seems to imply that marijuana is cool, which is an awkward message for an anti-drug campaign.