Image courtesy of flickr user John Hoey

The joy of emoji – behind the scenes of Durex’s safe sex campaign

Adopting emoji – the native language of social media – could lead to record-breaking consumer awareness. That’s if Durex’s safe sex campaign is anything to go by

By Gabrielle Lane

As feedback for a campaign goes, “@durex stop trying to use @unicode as a marketing ploy, you fucked-up dickheads” wasn’t what the team at comms agency Premier were after.

In December 2015, they’d applied to get a little blue condom added to the smartphone emoji dictionary. The pictograph was submitted to the Unicode Consortium – the not-for-profit body that encodes characters for digital communication – on behalf of contraceptive manufacturer Durex. The request was denied: the condom wasn’t among the 77 new characters unveiled in 2016, despite the presence in the list of some arguably less important symbols, such as an avocado, a drum and a person playing water polo.

Commentators blamed the Unicode Consortium’s exclusion of “images of products strongly associated with a particular brand”. Indeed, while Premier’s director of client strategy, Lawrence Francis, insists that “this campaign wasn’t about driving sales or brand presence”, he admits: “We knew that commercial applications were frowned on.”

Yet this was no PR failure: Premier had planned for the rejection. It promptly unleashed emoji in-jokes, staged five-hour social media hoaxes and hijacked the definition of the ‘umbrella with raindrops’ symbol on online listings, as part of a campaign that it says will help young people to talk about safe sex.

In total, the activity triggered more than seven billion impressions across print and online media. And, as the “dickheads” tweet shows, the agency, together with its global partners, had tapped into a powerful social trend. Emojis are a dominant part of modern communications platforms; those who use them take them seriously – and pay attention.

The power of emoji

“In the past few decades we have been communicating with written language in real-time interactions. Emojis are meaningful because they provide a way for individuals to give visual information that can enhance a message in place of the tone, gesture and expression of face-to-face interaction,” explains cognitive scientist Neil Cohn, who specialises in linguistics. So it makes sense that “organisations want to communicate with the methods that people do”.

Last year, smartphone users sent six million emojis in text messages every day, according to software firm SwiftKey. While the most popular image in the UK was a face with tears of joy, it was the widespread use of an aubergine as a phallic symbol that made headlines. In fact, in April 2015, Instagram made the aubergine the only emoji out of a possible 1,851 to be banned as a search term because of its connotations. Mindful of playful interpretations of the vegetable, Durex chose to apply for the condom emoji on World AIDS Day (1 December) in a move that it insists was part of its CSR activity.

“It’s very clear that the Unicode Consortium has a problem with sex,” says Volker Sydow, global category director for Reckitt Benckiser, which owns the Durex brand. “It’s still a fact that young people talk about it, send text messages about it and use symbols in that communication. We wanted to introduce an emoji that 100% promotes safe sex. If they’d rather young people use aubergines and peaches, we don’t think that is right.”

In any event, Durex’s quest to insert condoms into the emoji dictionary highlights many of the challenges and incentives for organisations that want to capture the communication zeitgeist.

Demographic demand

Firstly, emojis won’t appeal to everyone. In the case of Durex, the comms team knew its target audience of 16- to 25-year-olds used emojis frequently. They had commissioned research with the University of Durham that showed 84% of young people felt more comfortable talking about sex when using emojis. Meanwhile, the MTV Staying Alive Foundation had found that there was much misunderstanding of sexual health among the target audience. So Durex made its case for “putting safe sex into a language that was easy to use” by sharing this data in press releases. It also used a video and images of the condom emoji (hashtag #CondomEmoji) on Facebook and Twitter. Then, with its application to the Unicode Consortium filed, the wait for a decision began…

The waiting game

The thing about dealing with the Unicode Consortium is that, in the words of Francis, “it’s a mysterious organisation”. Applications for new emojis receive little or no feedback. “We entered a zone of unknown timing, where we were waiting for a response. We didn’t know what was going to happen throughout the year,” he says.

Officially, the approval process can involve 18 months of deliberations behind closed doors. While the identities of the decision-makers are a closely guarded secret, they are known to include Google and Apple, which first proposed emoji standardisation across electronic devices in 2007, as well as Microsoft and IBM.

Premier used the wait to its advantage. In May 2016, it published an image of an open text message that called for the condom emoji to be accepted (pictured above). Circulated as a promoted tweet, it was targeted at key journalists and supported by a Facebook video.

At this point, charity partners such as the Terrence Higgins Trust and New Zealand AIDS Foundation offered to support the campaign on their own channels. “We want to achieve the same thing – safe sex and better health for all,” explains Sydow. The combined effort drove 1.03 billion impressions across print and online.

Of course, a philanthropic seal of approval also helps counter the inevitable accusations of commercial self-interest that arise when an organisation tries to push an emoji of its own product.

Enter the legal minefield

From a legal perspective, it certainly is in a company’s interest to have its own emoji: existing emojis are protected by copyright law, as they are artistic works.

“The Unicode Consortium that enables their use doesn’t own the rights to the emojis themselves. There’s a big assumption that, once you make content available on the web, it’s fair use – that is not the case,” explains Steve Kuncewicz, principal lawyer, business advisory, at Slater and Gordon.

So, when using emojis in a way that promotes an organisation or that is outside of the messaging platforms on which they are mainly used, “the Durex way of doing things is best”, he says.

“If you’re coming up with your own idea for an emoji as part of a PR campaign that says it should be part of the lexicon, then you’re winning. You’re using something that’s yours and you’re trying to get that adopted for greater internet use: it’s the safest and most efficient way of generating engagement.”

But the problem is that devising a new emoji won’t guarantee its use. That’s just not how language works, explains Cohn. “Language is always user-motivated; you have a vocabulary of words that you have learned over time. If an external body is deciding what the vocabulary is for a communication set, people might see new emojis but they’re not going to know every one or internalise them easily.”

For this reason, when Durex and Premier discovered that the Unicode Consortium had rejected the condom emoji in June 2016, they based their response around emojis that were highly popular.

Image courtesy of flickr user Frank Behrens

In a bold move, they slapped an image of a real aubergine on spoof packaging for flavoured condoms and shared it on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The stunt triggered 3.13 billion impressions. Five hours later, they revealed that the launch of the product was a hoax. “It’s all about the creative idea,” insists Sydow. “The packaging was not sophisticated but the key result was that consumers played along with it and even made their own designs.”

Then, to mark World AIDS Day 2016, the comms team announced the results of a survey to find the ‘unofficial safe sex emoji’: an umbrella with raindrops. Internet dictionary Emojipedia then added ‘unofficial safe sex emoji’ as a definition for the symbol, which helped to trigger a further 789,000 interactions with Durex social media posts.

However, for its tongue-in-cheek appropriation of aubergines and raindrops to resonate, Durex had to rely on people sharing the same interpretation of the emojis. “There’s a belief that visual symbols are universal because they look like what the world is, but that’s not true. In the case of emojis, you have cross-
cultural variability. They may also be interpreted in different ways by the same people, given the context,” says Cohn.

Fortunately for Durex, the aubergine emoji is perhaps less open to misinterpretation than others. And its sexual connotations are certainly understood internationally, originating as they did in Japanese manga comics.

The worthy message of the Durex campaign would help to alleviate any offence too. “In some territories, some emojis might be interpreted in different ways and cause confusion, but we felt that, because at heart the message is positive throughout, that overcame any negative reactions,” reveals Francis.

For his team, the biggest advantage of emojis is their light-hearted tone. “Using an emoji enabled us to play along with the audience and have a conversation that was fun,” he says.

That conversation was global. The total number of impressions across print and online for Durex’s #CondomEmoji campaign was 7.9 billion – its highest level of engagement ever. The team attributes this success to adopting the natural language of social media and mirroring it with campaign pitches to traditional media.

The execution, not the outcome, was what was really important, says Sydow. “Even though in the end we didn’t get the official emoji, it didn’t really matter. Once you have more than seven billion impressions fuelled by a campaign, you’ve achieved your objective anyway.”

So, the question is this: is it time to whip out your aubergine?

Images courtesy of flickr users John Hoey & Frank Behrens


This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2017.

Posted in Editor's Picks, Public Relations, Social Media Tagged with: , , ,

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