The big game has long been over, but the real battle royal (aka the advertising Super Bowl) is still going on.
It's the battle of risk vs. reward, and for Snickers, risk has won out.
Last week, if you did a Google-search on Snickers, the top paid search ad is for "Brokeback Snickers," a spoof-site of the ad that ran during the Super Bowl, set to Gustavo Santaolalla's memorable score. The number three entry on the organic search list is the Wikipedia entry on Snickers, which describes the brand as the best selling homophobic candy bar of all time. And the hits in this game just keep on coming.
What is more shocking than the ad itself, however, is that the online strategy pursued by Masterfoods may have accidentally aided this unmitigated brand disaster. Let me explain.
Here is the scoop: The reality is that the initial airing of the Snickers ad generated a pretty favorable rating-- about 80 percent of online discussers reacted positively to the ad in real-time, while only 14 percent reacted negative. It wasn't considered best of breed, but in comparison to many other initial reactions to Super Bowl ads, it wasn't a bad showing. To put that in perspective, the worst-rated ad of the evening was a Salesgenie.com ad, which was rejected by a not so inconsequential 88 percent of online viewers.
So what happened? The Snickers ad generated the most discussion of any spot during the game, which is usually a good sign for a marketer, but in this case was an early warning. Contrary to popular belief, not all buzz is good buzz, and bloggers who objected to the ad had all the tools to make their case-- and make it very forcefully.
After the initial airing, the clip, as well as the alternative endings, was all over YouTube, and offended users were quick to embed the video along with angry commentary. Monday morning, as the story picked up steam, sentiment flipped to a positive/negative 20 percent/80 percent, and by Tuesday, when the campaign was shelved, favorable sentiment was in the single digits.
Giving a bit of credit to Masterfoods in the barrage of punches coming down on them, ad content aside, they were very open-minded about their online marketing techniques. Masterfoods did many things right-- they embraced video sharing, bought search keywords and encouraged the viewer to continue the story online by selecting the alternate ending. All of this makes sense as long as you have a plan for when criticism (and there is always criticism) crops up. Critics drove many of the repeat views, and that's when consumers changed their minds. Let's face it, most jokes aren't as good when you know the punch line, and even less so when someone tells you it's not funny.
Five years ago, this ad might have generated some follow-up press, but reactions would have been much more muted and Snickers probably would have been able to control the backlash. Now consumers can control the reputations of brands much more so than CMOs, VPs of corporate communications and PR agencies. Although having everyone blog, share and talk about your brand or message is what most marketers are rightly aiming for, it can also amplify negative buzz into an online consumer riot.
One thing that is often lost within the avalanche of knee-jerk winner/loser reports for the Super Bowl and buzz reports in general is the qualitative analysis. Looking at the user-generated data that we collected, it was very clear that the negatives for Snickers, while a small minority of total discussion, were by far the most heated of any of the Super Bowl ads.
Lesson: You have to listen because tone matters
Let me be specific-- the criticism Snickers garnered was far more personal than, say, the Salesgenie spot, where the vast majority of viewers exercised their inner creative director, giving it the thumbs down, grabbing another buffalo wing and moving on. Shock value as a strategy helps you stand out, but you can't ignore the risk side of risk/reward.
The key lesson for an advertiser is to try to anticipate what teapot tempests can become hurricanes early in the creative process. GoDaddy.com's annual ritual of having a series of spots rejected by the network not only creates advance buzz (this year, according to our study, it was unwarranted) but also blunts critics in advance. Do they lose the shock factor of their ads? No. Do people already know they are getting 30 seconds of messaging that would make Borat blush when they see the logo? Pretty much so.
Not that creativity and edginess should be reigned in, but if you are going to spend $2.6 million to go that route, you need to know where the cliffs are and protect your brand via advance outreach, attack ad word buys and an aggressive digital PR response.
Sam Huxley is the vice president of marketing, New Media Strategies, a subsidiary of Meredith Corporation. Read full bio.