Working in interactive media has a certain edge to it, and it often seems as though the online space is still somewhat like the Wild West -- when it comes to campaigns, if you can dream it, you can do it. That is, of course, unless you piss someone off.
Co-author Lori Luechtefeld is editor of iMedia Connection.
The social media revolution has given consumers a collective voice unlike anything we've seen before, which can be both a blessing (if a campaign is popular) and a curse (if your campaign is deemed offensive or otherwise objectionable). Consumers are now capable of unleashing a groundswell of negativity on a brand, and some brands, rather than weather the storm, would rather just pull the plug and sweep the mess under the rug.
Luckily for us, bad campaigns never really die on the internet, and the worst offenders live on so we can learn from their mistakes. The following six examples were all (presumably) dreamed up by creative teams with the best intentions, but somewhere along the way, they failed in the execution or hit unexpected roadblocks.
These campaigns might make you laugh. Others might disgust you. And more than likely, one or more will leave you scratching your head wondering who thought this was a good idea in the first place.
Campaign: Yaris' "Clean Getaways" video
The Toyota Yaris "Clean Getaways" online video, targeted at Australian audiences, was created as part of a short-film competition organized by Toyota in conjunction with agency Saatchi & Saatchi. During the sexual-innuendo-laced video, a young girl's father and her date banter back and forth in thinly veiled double entendres, presumably referring to the raunchy sex romp that the date has planned for the evening. Choice dialogue tidbits include "it has traction control for when it gets a bit slippery and wet," "a couple of nice big air bags to throw my head into," and "I'll have her on her back by 11, I promise."
The ad almost got away with being accused only of sexism. But then the father took it up a notch by throwing in this line: "She can take a good pounding in any direction." Yep. Now we've got some incest on our hands as well.
After viewer voting pushed the ad to first place, the competition's Facebook page was flooded with outraged remarks and accusations of everything from juvenile humor to the promotion of father-daughter hanky-panky. One comment declared, "I have written and lodged a formal complaint with Toyota's Australian head office regarding this specific competition entry/winner. I would encourage those who feel the same to also write formal complaints to Toyota. This is 2009! Women should not have to be dealing with this vulgar objectification."
Toyota wasted little time in issuing a formal apology, stating, "Immediately upon receiving negative feedback, at Toyota's direction, the video was removed from a third-party website on Sunday. Toyota understands and accepts that the content of the video was offensive."
According to the Australian marketing trade pub Mumbrella, the ad's director also expressed regret for any offense that was taken from the ad. But not all parties were so penitent. The creative behind the script, Micha McDonald, expressed little remorse. In the comments section on Mumbrella, McDonald wrote, "Yeah -- It's getting totally SLAMMED by everyone -- But that's exactly what we wanted it to do. Basically we put a $60,000 production behind a 1 minute dodgy 'Dick Joke' that looks like an actual ad -- and it WON. That's social media 4 ya -- Gotta love it when the big boys get burnt!!"
Campaign: "Tsunami" video
In an attempt to relate the scale of the tragic tsunami that killed 280,000 people in Southeast Asia in 2005, DDB Brazil and the World Wildlife Foundation Brazil tried to compare it to a tragedy that nearly everyone understood. Unfortunately, the example the two companies chose was the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Using computer animation, the agency recreated the image of two airplanes hitting the World Trade Center on New York City. The ad then shows dozens of airplanes swooping toward New York, intending to illustrate that the tsunami caused 100 times as many deaths. A print version simply showed the planes descending upon lower Manhattan.
The ad was intended to relay a message of planet conservation and show how global warming could potentially amplify the devastating effects of tsunamis in the future.
It's difficult to find anyone who seemed to think this ad was a good idea, and it certainly didn't help that bloggers, industry press, and the mainstream media all caught wind of it mere weeks before the anniversary of Sept. 11. Barbara Lippert of Adweek described the piece as "an ugly and dumb piece of creative, scoring high on the 'gratuitous use of tragedy to make a nonsensical argument' meter."
Needless to say, both the agency and its client took a beating in the media, with Keith Olbermann declaring DDB Brazil the "worst person in the world" on his talk show. But things only got uglier as this one bad ad led to loads of finger pointing and an interesting study in agency-client politics.
WWF's U.S.-based executive team quickly condemned the ad and vowed to have all traces of it removed. WWF Brazil's initial apology stated that no one within the organization ever signed off on the ad, but then things got even messier.
DDB came forth and said the creative team responsible was no longer with the agency, but the ad had been approved by someone at WWF's Brazilian office, and the print version had run, just once, in a small Brazilian newspaper. Shockingly, the agency had even gone so far as to enter it into competitions, including Cannes, and had somehow managed to win a certificate of merit at the One Show in 2009. (The certificate has since been withdrawn.)
With things spiraling out of control, WWF attempted to finally bury the issue with an official statement and a video message from president Carter Roberts, who disavowed the content of the ad and the message it delivered. "More than anything, we want to convey our great sorrow that these images exist and that they remind those families and everyone affected by 9/11 of a day that remains one of the most tragic in our nation's history."
Campaign: Internet Explorer 8's Barf-A-Rama
Microsoft's attempt at viral gold in promoting Internet Explorer 8 manifested in an online video titled "OMGIGP" -- as in, "Oh my God, I'm gonna puke." We all see where this is going.
The sin? Simple. The ad grossed people out. It features a woman who, after apparently stumbling across some of her mate's pornography choices in the browser history, repeatedly vomits on her partner (and yes, at some point, a little gets in his mouth).
Of course, Microsoft likely intended the ad to be gross. But in shooting for gross ha-ha, the company crossed the line into gross I-really-wish-I-hadn't-seen-that. Furthermore, the projectile puking was so over the top, it distracted from the brand's product message, leaving viewers struggling to recall why they had been subjected to such a spectacle in the first place.
People who don't like watching people vomit.
Within a couple days of the ad's debut, Microsoft was already seeking to distance itself from its barf-a-thon. With shrieks of "Yuck!" echoing in its ears, Microsoft pulled the ad from the IE8videos channel on YouTube, as well as from the campaign's site, BrowsefortheBetter.com. Shortly after, the agency responsible for the campaign, Bradley and Montgomery, took the ad off its site as well.
A Microsoft representative issued a statement saying, "We created the OMGIGP video as a tongue-in-cheek look at the InPrivate Browsing feature of Internet Explorer 8, using the same irreverent humor that our customers told us they liked about other components of the Internet Explorer 8 marketing campaign. While much of the feedback to this particular piece of creative was positive, some of our customers found it offensive, so we have removed it."
What the representative failed to add was, "But if you, like us, think the ad is funny, check out the numerous versions still available on YouTube."
Campaign: "Shiny Suds" video
A suburban housewife sets forth a team of animated soapy bubbles, who glide around the tub and clean her bathroom while singing a cheery tune, a la the classic Scrubbing Bubbles commercials. But when she returns to shower the next morning, those diligent bubbles have transformed into gap-toothed perverts, urging the woman to get into the shower while they linger and watch. Some of the catcalls from the animated bubbles include "scrubby dubby, baby" and a quiet "get in the tub, please."
The ad was designed by creative agency Droga5 to promote household cleaning company Method's support of the Household Product Labeling Act, which requires companies to disclose the ingredients of household cleaners. The underlying premise was that those everyday cleaners get the job done, but they can leave behind harmful (and perhaps drunk and horny) residue.
Droga5 had found success with seeding viral videos in the past, but no one was expecting what came next.
Very few viral ads have ever been as polarizing as "Shiny Suds." Consumers landed firmly on two sides of the fence: Either they found it hilarious, or they were calling for every Method executive's head. It was a situation very similar to the now-infamous "Motrin Moms" campaign that drew the ire of the mommy blogging community -- only this time, Method seemed to strike a nerve with feminist bloggers.
Detractors largely took objection with how the woman cowered uncomfortably in the shower as the cartoon bubbles ogled her. Some remarked that the video was simply creepy, while others unleashed expletive-filled diatribes aimed at Method and Droga5. One Shakesville comment equated the ad with condoning rape and said, "Making us fear chemical residue from cleaning products because it's tied into a rape threat is beyond sickening." Dozens vowed to boycott Method, and the company received more than 600 angry emails shortly after the video showed up online.
Method acted quickly, removing the video from its website and pulling its official YouTube video, which had been viewed more than 700,000 times in a week. Method also responded to each and every email it received with a message that said in part, "It was not at all our intent to offend or promote any form of harassment. We understand the concerns associated with our video and are removing it from YouTube and all other controlled sources."
However, as with any viral video, "Shiny suds" still lives on in the form of bootleg copies, which can easily be found on YouTube. Even after Method formally pulled the ad, feminist blogs had no problem finding embeddable copies to help get their readers in a lather. Strangely enough, an image of the bubbles still appears on Method's homepage and the splash page for PeopleAgainstDirty.com, the brand's educational page for the bill.
Ironically, "Shiny Suds" was a huge hit with the industry itself. The ad was lauded by marketers at the Association of National Advertisers conference in November, according to Ad Age, and the video sharing blog The Daily Tube said that the bubbles' cries of "Loo-fah! Loo-fah! Loo-fah!" was its new favorite chant.
Campaign: The "Amp Up Before You Score" iPhone app
Last fall, Pepsi's Amp Energy drink brand launched its "Amp Up Before You Score" iPhone app, a short-lived attempt to provide men with a handy tool for picking up women and a virtual bedpost in which to put notches. Helmed by digital agency R/GA, the app provided pickup lines and background information on 24 female stereotypes, including everything from the "tree hugger" to the "military chick." The app also enabled users to conveniently publicize conquests after each "score."
The sin, according to detractors, was in the very fiber of the app's intent and execution. Stereotyping women. Encouraging meaningless sexual escapades. Simply listening to someone describe the concept behind the app is enough to make a reasonable person wonder, "How could the company not anticipate a shitstorm?"
Unlike some online marketing flops that subsequently get pulled (e.g., Motrin's mommy blogger fiasco), criticism of the Amp app was not confined to a small group of incredibly vocal protestors. Rather, cries of sexism rang out across the breadth of social networks following the app's unveiling. Objections were tempered by responses from some Amp app supporters, who bemoaned the loss of our society's sense of humor in favor of politically correct outrage. But in the end, the roar of the detractors won out.
Pepsi apologized -- and that's when things really got interesting. Rather than issuing a cursory "whoops" statement, the company chose to make a grand social media spectacle of its apology -- and to bring all of its brands into the mess.
First, Amp posted an apology to its @Ampwhatsnext Twitter feed ("Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go 2 pick up women. We apologize if it's in bad taste & appreciate your feedback."), and included the tag #pepsifail. Sister brands Pepsi and Mountain Dew, as well as PepsiCo corporate, retweeted the message, disseminating the mea culpa to an additional 38,000 Twitter users beyond Amp's piddling 1,000 followers -- and ostensibly aligning Pepsi's top brands with the company's misbehaving stepchild.
Twitterers seized on the #pepsifail tag, and a new wave of outraged app critics -- ones who weren't even aware of the app until the apology -- sprang forth. A week later, Pepsi pulled the app. The delay between the apology and subsequent discontinuation led some to speculate that Pepsi was enjoying the publicity generated by the controversy. Regardless, not long after the debacle, PepsiCo announced big changes to its agency roster, including a digital agency review for the Amp Energy brand. According to Ad Age, however, R/GA reportedly resigned the account before the "Amp Up Before You Score" app even launched.
Campaign: "Whopper Sacrifice" Facebook app
Burger King again teamed with Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the agency behind the now-infamous "Subservient Chicken" viral campaign, for a Facebook application that would reward consumers for being bad. The premise was simple: After adding the app to their Facebook page, consumers would get a coupon for a free Whopper sandwich if they eliminated 10 Facebook friends.
The fast-food chain planned to cap the promotion at 25,000 burgers, or 250,000 spurned friends. In the roughly two weeks that the application was live, users sacrificed 233,906 friends, according to the application's Facebook page.
This final campaign is unique from the aforementioned in that consumers were not the ones who took offense. Surely there were objections from a few goody two-shoes who worried about things like "feelings" and "karma," but oddly enough, the primary objector to the campaign was Facebook itself.
When a user sacrificed a friend in the name of the Whopper, that friend in turn received an email notifying them that their friendship was less valuable than an all-beef patty. Facebook was concerned that this would disrupt user privacy expectations and asked Burger King to remove that element. Typically, there is no notification when a user deletes a friend.
Rather than cater to the social network's demands, Burger King chose to end the campaign instead, citing "philosophical differences" in a statement, which made things sound more like a bitter divorce than an ad campaign.
Unlike the other five campaigns in this article, it's highly unlikely that Burger King or Crispin regretted unleashing the Whopper Sacrifice. Although the application was short-lived, the campaign generated plenty of buzz outside the internet; witness this New York Times article that debates the moral quandaries of social network de-friending.
The campaign also enhanced Crispin's status as a maverick online agency, and went on to earn a Webby Award nomination for online guerilla marketing.
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