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  • Writer's pictureSimon Rawling

In what ways can marketing and digital communications be ‘ethical’? Part 2

The second in our three-part series. this blog investigates the representation and promotion of minority voices in marketing. Adidas Beyond The Surface, which you can watch here

Figure 1: Adidas 2021. Beyond the surface

The latest iteration of the broader ‘impossible is nothing in’ movement, ‘Beyond the Surface’ aimed “To inspire women in MENA to break stereotypes and build confidence in each other, we created the world's first swimmable liquid billboard that delivered women a sense of liberation” (WARC, 2021)

Winning the Cannes Lions Outdoor Grand Prix. “The campaign reached more than 300 million people across 50 countries with $1.5m earned media and sold 70% of the new inclusive swimwear line in four weeks. More importantly, it started a conversation about inclusivity in water, resulting in more women in MENA feeling comfortable embracing it.” (WARC, 2021)

Adidas built a large pool with a clear side resembling a billboard exhibited on the beach in Dubai with a live feed to an ooh display in the city centre. This was accompanied by a documentary film showing backstage footage of the billboard being made and interviews with the participants.

To assess the effectiveness of this campaign, I have conducted a PESTLE analysis (see appendix 1) For this discussion, we will explore the sociological and economic context.


A report released by Fact.Mr (2021) stated that “the women’s swimwear market is expected to reach US$ 206.54 Bn by 2032.” There has also been strong growth in what many term the ‘Modest Fashion’ sector which predominantly markets to Muslim consumers. Muslim consumer spending is expected to grow at a 5-year CAGR of 2.4% between 2019 and 2024 to reach $311 billion in 2024. (DINAR STANDARD. 2021) Growing evidence also suggests that diversity and inclusion positively affect ROI. “negative effects for new brands can be reversed if the company explicitly signals a priority for both the product and its CSR endeavours. Importantly, we do not see a similar negative impact of CSR on established brands (Kantar, 2021).


Recent decades have witnessed a growth in the popularity of women's sports exemplified by the “record-breaking 1.12 billion viewers watched the 2019 Women's World Cup” (BBC, 2019).

Women's attitudes to sports and swimming, in particular, seem to vary by region. According to the data released prior to the campaign, “ 82% of MENA (Middle East North Africa) women “didn't feel comfortable wearing a swimsuit at a public beach or pool”, which was three times higher than the global average. (YouGov, 2020). This may be in part to differences in how women are portrayed in advertising in MENA countries. Sanjiv Kakkar, executive vice president of Unilever, MENA stated, “The greater Middle East region has a long way to go to achieve gender balance across all sectors. And it is well acknowledged that the prevalent gender stereotypes are fundamentally blocking progress towards equality.”

Recent events such as the introduction of the feminine Arabic feature to Twitter do demonstrate a growing appetite for change. When referring to the new feature, Rasha Fawakhiri, (2019) head of comms for Twitter, MENA said, "We want our service to reflect the voices that shape the conversations that take place on our service,"

So how effective was this as a strategy?

Well, let’s measure that against the economic and sociological context.


In economic terms, the campaign was a success. Selling 70% of the new inclusive swimwear line in four weeks is formidable but not unexpected, “Ads with people from diverse backgrounds are more likely to get viewers’ attention and be remembered; they are more enjoyable and involving and can have a multiplier effect, making advertising spend more efficient, improving media ROI, and generating both a stronger short-term sales likelihood and long-term brand-building. (Kantar, 2021).


One of the campaign's KPIs was to “To inspire all women in MENA to feel confident in the water” (WARC, 2021). This seems to have been borne out via real-time feedback from the campaign organisers. Joao Medeiros, ECD at Havas Middle East, noted: ‘One participant who dived in said: “Not once while I was in the water, did I think about what I looked like if people were judging me and my body – I was totally and completely out of my head and in the moment.”(Cantagious, 2021).

On a broader level, the brand states an objective of the campaign was to “Increase the number of women in MENA feeling comfortable in the water from 12% to 25%” (WARC, 2021) The campaign went on to beat this target and achieve 36%. (WARC, 2021) While this is a fantastic result it could be regarded as short-term in nature. For example, has that figure changed since 2021? Will the campaign be repeated?

Another consideration could be running the campaign in Dubai. Addidas stated the research showed “women don't need role models; they need to see women like them” then why chose a city made up almost entirely of ex-pats with just 11% Emirati (GMI, 2022)

A counter to this could be that the brand always planned to be “creating an idea that would influence people across channels, involve mass media coverage and PR.” and with 10k Mentions, coverage in 100 media outlets and $1.5 million in earned media (WRAC, 2021)they clearly achieved this.

When talking about brands using women in marketing, Laura Weston, Women’s Sport Trust board director and former managing director of Iris Culture (2021) says “They’ve all got these brand values, and they love talking about them in PowerPoints, so it would be nice if they actually did something. Don’t say it, do it,”.

A quick look at Adidas's 2021 annual report does show a genuine ambition to take action in this regard. “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion underpins everything we do. It is the glue that spans every country, department and team. We want to ensure that through our people's actions, we create an equal starting line for everyone within Adidas. (Adidas annual report, 2021) 

This campaign was a success in both economic and sociological terms in achieving its objectives. Yes, the campaign was about selling more products, but in doing so it clearly had a positive effect on MENA women.


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STATISTA. (2022). ‘Women's activewear market value worldwide from 2021 to 2029 (in million U.S. dollars)’. Statista. Statista Inc.[online]. Available at: October 29, 2022.

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Figure 1. Adidas. 2021 Beyond the surface.- Billboard [Website]. Contagious [online]. Available

at: [accessed September 2022].

Figure 2. Adidas. 2021 Beyond the surface. DOOH [Website]. Contagious [online]. Available

at: [accessed September 2022].

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