What Brands Can Learn From IBM’s #HackAHairDryer Campaign Fiasco

IBM’s perfectly well intentioned campaign hoped to topple gender stereotypes with a gender stereotype. It had to backfire.

“Girls don’t like science? Nonsense. Let’s blast away the barriers to #Womenintech” tweeted IBM announcing its new campaign #HackAHairDryer aimed at encouraging young women to get into STEM careers and promoting women who are already in them.

In an ideal world, a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics should attract the scientifically-inclined young minds, with gender being a non-issue. But, in our so-called developed world, most of the jobs in these fields are perceived as ‘boy jobs’. Cultural stigmas have often driven girls away from pursuing their interests in STEM.

IBM’s perfectly well intentioned campaign #HackAHairDryer hoped to topple such existing gender stereotypes in the new campaign. The tweet led one to a link featuring 26×26, a platform showcasing 26 innovations by 26 women in various tech roles at IBM.

Rhonda Childress, Chief Technology Officer, IBM Security Services, has 74 patents to her name and is an IBM fellow. Her password fortifier patent could change password entry as we know it by making stronger passwords last longer. Jia Chen, Director, Health Solutions, Smarter Cities has 10+ patents and is working on collecting data using wearable devices so that medical professionals are alerted when a patient at home needs attention.

Yet, for all its well-meaning intentions to get women in tech, the campaign backfired. Associating a hairdryer to attract women, is again propagating the very stereotype the campaign is trying to address. Many people including women technologists and scientists used #HackAHairDryer with their sarcastic tweets.

IBM was quick to the rescue. Before matters could spiral out towards a massive social media disaster, it called off the campaign and apologised. “Thanks for the feedback on our campaign. We heard you and we apologize for missing the mark. We promise to do better in the future.”

“The videos were part of a larger campaign to promote STEM careers,” the company told WIRED in a statement. “It missed the mark for some and we apologize.”

What’s in it for brands?

Social media is the melting pot of emotions, frustrations, vent-outs as well as dreams, aspirations and a wish for a better world. It is forever thriving with conversations that one could learn a lot from. A future-driven brand cannot afford to overlook what people are saying and thinking about the world.

Gender stereotyping has taken such a massive toll on the general well being and progress of a nation with its deep running sexist fault lines, that brands with an eye on the future need to be very careful while fighting them. We know this, yet we choose to ignore it.

IBM failed at the initial level when the campaign was being ideated on the drawing board. For #HackAHairDryer, the team should have brainstormed better to find a stronger, non-sexist hashtag to convey its message. After all, it only wanted to woo women in tech as the best company to work with. Alternately, #26×26 could have been an intriguing campaign hashtag.

But, what it messed up with the hashtag, it more than made for in its apology. It showed gratitude, listening skills, apology and a promise to do better in the future. Brands could take a leaf from this mini-fiasco by the very brand that supports workplace diversity.