As a marketer, I am often offended by initiatives that are useless, not well thought out, possess "whiz bang" but lack substance, or are just strategically unsound. I deplore marketing initiatives that, in effect, undermine the credibility of my chosen profession and put the marketing profession at large one notch above used car sales. (No offense to used car salespeople; you are all doing a great job.) But alas, marketing is my job and my passion, so I think about these types of things a lot.
I am not the only one who has been offended by marketing. In fact, there have been a number of cases over the last year in which marketing campaigns have disturbed, annoyed, and even repulsed people -- people who are outside of the marketing profession. Marketers may have gotten away with a great deal of offensive marketing in the past, but in a world powered by social computing and mass conversation, brands cannot afford to piss people off to the same degree as they once did.
In this article, I will discuss a number of marketing campaigns that offended large groups of people (as well as one or two campaigns that offended me personally). In doing so, I will try to unearth the specific reasons that people were offended, in the hope that you don't make the same mistakes.
There is no accounting for taste. (Or is there?)
Buzz creation and disruption are two popular concepts in modern marketing. It requires a great deal of creativity (and potentially some risk) to design communications that are cutting edge enough to stop consumers dead in their tracks, get them to pay attention, and entertain them to the point that they feel compelled to tell a friend about the campaign.
When marketers strive to create buzzworthy advertising, they often fail to adhere to the rules of taste. Defying the rules of taste is not a good idea for a soft drink company. Let's look at the recent Pepsi Max campaign. Although these print ads were not necessarily conceived as an online campaign, the resulting backlash -- whether Pepsis expected it or not -- most assuredly turned this campaign into an interactive marketing lesson:
I can see fit to applaud BBDO (the agency that created the campaign) for creating something edgy and visually on par with some of today's top pop and street art. But the bottom line is this: People do not take suicide lightly. I realize that this ad does not imply that suicide is funny, nor does it explicitly make light of the matter. But the question has to be asked, "How did Pepsi not know that people would be offended by this?"
Taking risks is one thing. Ignorance is another.
I cannot conclusively quantify the impact that this campaign had on people's overall perception of Pepsi. But I can say that Pepsi is at the top of the search engine results page (SERP) for a query that results in some pretty depressing content. Furthermore, people on Twitter did not find this ad amusing.
Check out this SERP for a query on "suicide advertising":
Many were deeply offended by this ad, and rightfully so.
Pepsi can apologize all it wants. (And it has.) But this ad is now part of its brand DNA. Some mistakes are not that easy to erase.
- Be mindful when taking chances; the memory of the web is permanent.
- Some things are sacred, even if they are not sacred to you.
The medium is the offensive.
Two of the cases in this article outline campaigns containing offensive messaging. In a post-McLuhan era, where the medium is the message, the misuse of a media vehicle can be just as offensive as copy and imagery. I think it's safe to say that most of us have been offended by telemarketers or the misuse of email (spam). But there is a new potential culprit in the world of soon-to-be-abused disruptive messaging, and this potential miscreant is the text message.
Recently, AT&T sent out text messages to a large number of its 75 million customers. The message was a promotion for "American Idol," a show that AT&T sponsors. (The company also plays a key role in the show, as only AT&T customers can vote for their favorite singers via text message.) Many of the mobile customers had not opted in to get this text, and the Twittersphere was, well, all atwitter!
Have a look at some of the conversation:
Sure, Twitter has been known, at times, to have a bit of a mob mentality. But in this case, it is apparent that these people were angry, and the ripples that began on Twitter created waves across the web.
Mobile marketing is becoming more and more commonplace, and I am sure mobile spam will get much worse before it gets better. I think the main issue here is this: Mobile phones are still very personal devices, and when a consumer signs up with a carrier, that person is putting a certain amount of trust in that company. If that trust is compromised, people will begin to look for alternatives.
I wish you would just call me stupid to my face. (It would save a lot of time.)
Picture this: You stroll into a Best Buy (or any consumer electronics retail outlet -- I picked Best Buy, as we seem to be running out of options) looking for a digital video camera. A salesman tells you he has a great deal on a slick new model. As he begins to show this wonderment of digital technology, he alludes to the fact that the camera lacks certain key features -- features highlighted on the promo display for the next camera on the shelf. Curious, you look at that next camera on the shelf and notice that the camera with the more desirable features is $500 more than the camera you were being sold initially. You realize you have entered a bait-and-switch routine.
Has anything like this ever happened to you? Think back: How did it make you feel?
Lately, it seems that brands will do anything and everything in their power to get your attention. Some have even resorted to bait-and-switch tactics, as well as outright lies, in order to lure you into the sales funnel. I find these tactics offensive, and they make a brand look desperate. There is nothing fashionable about desperation, which is why I find it ironic that Australian fashion designer Witchery and its agency, Naked Communications, decided to pull the following stunt.
Have a look at this video, make some notes on your feelings, and then let's chat:
Does this thing look authentic to you? It sure doesn't look authentic to me. In fact, it reeks of me-too viralism. (I realize viralism is not a word. But its use is just as silly as the marketers out there seeking viral success without good content.)
At first I thought, "Perhaps the agency meant this to be whimsically transparent." But somehow I doubt that was the case. (If I am wrong, I invite the brand or agency to correct me, and I will ask iMedia to create an addendum to this section.) In the absence of any information that would lead us to believe this was anything but an attempt to fool people, let's proceed under the assumption that that was the case.
Perhaps you think this campaign is clever. Maybe you think it was silly. Or maybe you agree that it is misleading. But offensive? Allow me to elaborate.
Here are my reasons for calling the Witchery campaign offensive:
- It attempts to undermine my intelligence.
- It makes the underlying statement, "Men are weak when it comes to pretty blonde girls, and it is easy to trick them."
- It is an utter a waste of time. I would prefer if the company said, "Here is a pretty blonde; do you want to buy a coat?" Who knows, that might actually work.
- It creates a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario. Personally, I am a romantic at heart. When brands cut into the online conversational channels, they undermine the credibility of the channel, rendering it useless for real situations. I hate when brands think they can steamroll over consumer conversations and make a mockery of the human condition.
The video is not the only piece to this initiative. A website was created that cleverly (?) uses an Apple .ME account:
I have to give some credit to the Naked team -- there are some clever elements in this campaign. But the bottom line is that it is a farce, and I am sure that those who were fooled by it did not enjoy finding out that:
- Their dream girl with the coat is a corporate shill, or
- This reverse-Cinderella storybook tale was nothing more than corporate America abusing our emotions. (Remember how mad Oprah was when she found out that "Angel at the Fence" was a farce?)
That being said, I cannot imagine how anyone was fooled by this, as the site had pictures like this on it:
Uh-huh. This looks authentic.
...and finally, the truth is told!
- There is a fine line between a puzzle and a lie. Make sure you are on the right side of that line.
- Conversational media is sacred to those who use it. Be careful not to take advantage.
- If you are going to try to trick people into believing an actress is a real person, find someone who can really act.
Don't put words in my mouth.
Have you ever heard the phrase, "Don't put words in my mouth"? Most of us have been on both ends of this phrase. As you probably know, this phrase makes reference to an attempt to fabricate the voice of another person -- a common practice in marketing.
For decades marketers were able to get away with fabricating the voice of their target audiences. They would frequently portray a given market segment in the way that best suited the needs of the brand. Consumers were not always empowered to talk to one another about how they felt about marketing messages, and often their voices were never heard. Enter Twitter.
Most of us are probably familiar with the recent "Motrin Moms" debacle, in which Motrin and its agency, Taxi-NYC, attempted to create a viral video campaign. (It makes me cringe just writing the words "viral video.") This 47-second video fabricated the voice of mothers who wear slings to carry their babies.
The video portrays these sling-wearing mothers as victims of fashion who are making desperate attempts to look like "official moms." There is little I can say about the details of this campaign that has not already been covered by Jeremiah Owyang, Laura Fitton, and The New York Times. Still, the reason I am bringing up an initiative that has already been beaten to a pulp is to mention three core marketing flaws that many overlook when discussing this campaign.
This campaign was fundamentally flawed for three reasons:
- It incorrectly fabricated the voice of the consumer.
- The time was not taken to properly listen to the target audience.
- Tactics (create a viral video) were put before strategy (open a dialogue with mothers to sell more Motrin).
The result of this initiative was truly viral -- but in a completely different way than Motrin intended.
Let's go to the videotape (for those living under a rock who have not seen this):
- Viral is not a strategy.
- It is not possible to listen with your mouth open.
There are a lot of ways to get people's attention. You can make people laugh, think, smile, or even cry. But remember: Attention is only part of the battle. It takes a true positive impact and added value to win the war.
Adam Broitman is strategy director/ringleader at Crayon.
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