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Lessons from expensive marketing failures

Lessons from expensive marketing failures Susan Kuchinskas

Interactive ad campaigns that miss the mark are as common as skid marks in winter. While failures are always costly, high-profile missteps can be particularly hazardous to a marketer's bottom line. We took a look at six 2008 campaigns that fomented outrage to see where they went wrong. And while it may not be fair to call any of these campaigns flops -- after all, all of these ads got the blogosphere buzzing, with mainstream media coverage as well -- we can tell you how to do better.

1. Brokeback Snickers

TBWA\Chiat\Day's Super Bowl commercial for Snickers, in which two grimy car mechanics are horrified at finding themselves unexpectedly lip-to-lip, was arguably a spoof of macho attitudes. But neither the Human Rights Campaign nor the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation thought so, calling it demeaning -- and calling for a boycott. Snickers' online component of the campaign made things worse.

Viewers could go online to choose alternate endings, which were darker and more violent than the TV version, in which the guys pull out their chest hair in an effort to "do something manly." Online, you could watch one mechanic slam a car's hood down on the other's head or hit a brutal belly blow with a wrench. Ouch! Bonus content included candid videos of the Super Bowl players going, "Eeeoouuu" when the mechanics' mouths touch.

Activists called for a boycott, amid global press coverage of the company's homophobia, not the yumminess of its product. Mars took down the website.

Okay, so the offending Super Bowl spot was way back in 2007, right? Lesson learned, right? Nope. Mars was back this past July with a TV spot in which a slender male race-walker in teensy yellow shorts is harassed by Mr. T and told to "run like a real man" and "get some nuts." The ad was promptly pulled following a new swell of protest. However, thanks to the miracle of viral media, the spot lives on via YouTube.

What we can learn

1. If you're going to engage in conversation with your customers, listen to what they say.

2. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.

Next page >>

2. The Google killer stubs its toe

Cuil is another tech startup in a long line of such that hope to grab a piece of Google's humongous ad action by doing search better.

It called itself the world's biggest search engine, claiming that the 120 billion web pages in its index was more than Google's. This boast instantly raised expectations, along with the pedigree of its founders, two former Google execs. Cuil would be a "Google killer," people began to say. Intense interest was fired by influential tech bloggers like Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, who gushed in September 2007, "The murmurs about new stealth search engine Cuil (pronounced "cool"), which were barely a whisper earlier this year, are gaining strength and are starting to reverberate through Silicon Valley gatherings." In a later post, he fired up the buzz with words like "super-stealth," "secret sauce" and "massive search engine." Tech bloggers followed his lead.

By the time Cuil launched in July 2008, there was no way it could live up to the hype. More than 50 million visitors overwhelmed its servers and, worse, search results weren't all that good. Traffic to the site peaked in August at 1.5 million visitors, according to Quantcast, but plummeted faster than the mortgage securities market, dipping to .4 million users at the end of September. By then, Cuil was the "ill-fated" search engine.

This was a perfect word-of-mouth campaign that peaked way too early. In the best-case scenario, the search engine would have gone live with limited use and worked the kinks out before anyone noticed it. After all, that's what Google did. To be fair, Cuil didn't necessarily seed this campaign, other than to put up a placeholder web page. It was both the beneficiary and victim of the tech-blogging beast that's constantly on the hunt for scoops.

What we can learn

1. Timing is everything when it comes to viral campaigns.

2. Under-promise and over-deliver -- not the other way around.

3. Red with mortification

In April, Hollywood celebrities and international media packed the premiere party for "Scarlet," a new TV thriller series starring the Natassia Malthe, an exotic actress who'd played a few bit roles. Hollywood producer David Nutter lent credibility to the project, while Malthe began to make the scene at high-profile events like the Oscars.

An integrated marketing campaign reputed to cost $100 million was a group effort between Agency.com (New York and London), Tequila\London, Stream and Premier PR. Broadcast ads sent viewers to Scarlet.tv (no longer an active site), where they could see more commercials and trailers for the show. The PR folk planted rumors linking Malthe romantically to major stars.

So, excitement was high at the premiere, as partiers waited to see the opening episode. Instead, what they saw was a commercial for Scarlet, the world's slimmest LCD TV. While LG, Scarlet's manufacturer, said audience reaction was positive, on the internet, TV fanboys howled with rage.

But some advertising insiders loved it. "I absolutely fell for it. The concept of a TV series really being a series of TVs was incredibly creative," says integrated marketing consultant Amanda Vega. Where LG dropped the ball, she adds, is in not interacting with fans after the reveal. For example, the company could have asked fans whether it should sponsor a series and, if so, what should it be like. She thinks negative press about a campaign is harder on the agency than the advertiser.

What we can learn

Use every opportunity to gather feedback that will help with product development and future marketing.


4. Dr. Pepper leaves a bad taste

The band Guns N' Roses had become a rock-n-roll travesty, too addled to finish its sixth album after 14 years. So, in January, the folks at Dr. Pepper gave the band a challenge: Finish the album, and we'll give every American a free soda.

They may have thought this was a safe bet, but in October, the band finally released "Chinese Democracy" -- doubtless without giving a heads-up to the soft drink maker. The company issued a statement saying, "We never thought this day would come." Obviously not.

The day of the release, Dr. Pepper put up a website where people could register to be mailed a coupon for their drink. So, they weren't giving every American a soda, just every American who could log onto the site within 24 hours. The website couldn't keep up with demand, and the complaints and negative coverage began. The company added a toll-free number and extended the offer to give more Americans a chance to get their sugary due.

But the backlash was severe, led by Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose. The band's lawyer called the promotion -- or whatever -- an unmitigated disaster, and Rose is still being asked about it. Which means, he is still talking about Dr. Pepper. For free. Even though he's saying bad things.

Dr. Pepper gets style points for linking its brand to a major band without having to pay a fee -- or even negotiate with -- the record label. You could call this B2B social media.

What we can learn

1. Endorsements are not the only way to link your brand to celebrities.

2. Prepare for your campaign's success with a bullet-proof website.

5. It's so... big!

Crispin Porter + Bogusky made its mark by pushing the boundaries of taste, but this campaign takes that literally. "Watch the Whopper Virgins Take Their First Bite!" No, this is not "Alex and Jeff make a porno." It's a Burger King campaign that purports to ask remote indigenous people, from Thailand, Greenland and Transylvania -- "people who don't even have a word for burger" -- to decide whether a Whopper beats a Big Mac.

A teaser campaign launched Dec. 2, showing people in their native costumes sitting down to big burgers. A microsite hosts the spots online, along with an eight-minute documentary showing the crews traveling the world to perform the tests. It's not clear how much of this -- if any -- is true. "The remote Chang Mai villagers" who have never heard of a hamburger could buy one right in town, for example.

The commentariat criticized the spots for cultural insensitivity, as well as cruelty for subjecting these people to potential gastric complaints. The Boston Globe compared Burger King to the early European colonizers who wiped out the Native Americans with disease.

Those headlines may not matter, says Howard Greenstein, president and social strategist for the Harbrooke Group. "It matters as much as your film critic saying a film is terrible, but it's a huge box office hit. Certainly there's a place for people who have experience to say it's good or not. The crowd also decides whether something is great or not so great. The critic becomes just another voice."

Then there is the little matter of finding the spots in the first place. According to Advertising Age, after the campaign debuted, it was next to impossible to find the campaign's website via a Google search if you omitted the plural "s" on the end of the search terms (i.e., you searched for "whopper virgin" instead of "whopper virgins"). So, Burger King missed a simple SEM tactic and didn't buy any search ads to appear beside queries for "whopper virgin." Who knows how much additional web traffic this simple omission may have cost the company.

What we can learn

1. If you have a great idea, make sure to have an SEO plan in place for all terms and contingencies, including misspelled-but-similar keywords.

2. If you don't know which half of your advertising spend works, at least have fun spending the money.

6. A viral headache

You're probably familiar with the Motrin fiasco: An online video attempted to be humorous in pointing out that carrying a baby around can hurt your back. Mommy bloggers took offense and marshaled their minions to blast Motrin maker McNeil Consumer Healthcare. Motrin marketers had hoped the video would go viral as a kickoff to a new marketing campaign by Taxi. Instead, McNeil took down the video (useless) and abandoned the rest of the campaign.

What was notable about this particular backlash was that it broke on Twitter -- which means it spread almost instantaneously. McNeil should have had people monitoring Twitter, people who were trained in social media interaction, says Greenstein. "Social media crisis situations call for different responses than the spokesperson trained to talk to the media might come up with," he says.

Twitter is just another example of the tightening of the feedback loop between products and consumers, he adds. "You can wake up the next morning and find you're the number-one villain on Twitter. That's a real risk for brand marketers. You can also wake up and find you're a hero."

What we can learn

Designate people to listen to all communication channels 24/7, and empower them to respond to immediately to queries, rants and raves.  

Susan Kuchinskas is a freelance writer who has written for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com.

Susan Kuchinskas has covered internet technology since the mid 1990s, when e-commerce was kind of a wacky idea. As a senior writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com, she's watched the interactive advertising grow from a tiny...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Mary Fletcher Jones

2009, January 08

Excellent article! Great research.