Tuesday, January 12

Getting Attention: Shock And Sorry


"It's all about brand visibility and getting an ad out there. In a blogging and Twittering era everyone wants to do something worthy of talking about." — Paul Kurnit, author of the Little Blue Book of Marketing to Forbes.

In an effort to show that outdoor advertising works, The Outdoor Advertising Association launched a campaign to get attention in London. The creative, designed by the Beta Agency, was planned to run for 14 days on buses and buildings.

"Career women make bad mothers." — The Outdoor Advertising Association

The Outdoor Advertising Association gained attention. The ads came down after hundreds of moms expressed their outrage in forums. The Beta Agency offered its apology on a blog, claiming to have no idea the campaign would create outrage.

According to Game Change, a book about the 2008 presidential campaign quoted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) as he described why he thought Obama could win. Reid, though enamored by the candidate's speaking abilities, attributed it to Obama to being a “light skinned” black man.

People like Barack Obama "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." — U.S. Sen. Harry Reid

Reid apologized to the President on Saturday for the remarks. The President accepted and said he considers the issue closed. Sen. Reid is reported to have called many African-American leaders to extend his apology. He did not apologize to Americans, who he believed wouldn't vote for a candidate who seems "too black."

Kentucky Fried Chicken is running an advertisement in Australia that features a distressed white guy, surrounded by a crowd of black people at a cricket match, using chicken to get out of an "awkward situation."

"Need a tip when you're stuck in an awkward situation?" — Kentucky Fried Chicken

Kentucky Fried Chicken originally defended, claiming that its advertisement was never intended for the U.S., where the culturally-based stereotype exists. Australians are baffled by the controversy, but Kentucky Fried Chicken has since apologized and pulled the advertisement.

What people talk about is more important than how many people are talking.

P.T. Barnum was the one who originally coined the phrase "all publicity is good publicity," and there are plenty of marketers who are happy to quote him today. Of course, it was easy for Barnum to utter those words. He made himself a millionaire by promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the circus.

The question marketers sometimes forget to ask themselves is do they want their product, services, or persons to be associated as a hoax or a circus? Brands are fragile things. If they weren't, Tiger Woods would still be signed by AT&T.

No one really wants their name caught in a firestorm of negative press and public backlash. It's all too easy for such follies — whether contrived or accidental — to overshadow every other message. In every case above, deserved or not, the organizations, companies, and people were forced to put their messages aside in favor of apologies.

Don't misunderstand me. Kentucky Fried Chicken's advertisement doesn't really have any racial undertones unless people insert them (the ad featured different rugby fans in a country that doesn't understand chicken stereotyping); U.S. Sen. Reid demonstrated ignorance over malicious intent (dialects aren't racial as much as regional); and The Outdoor Advertising Association and its agency is either naive or lying to think such a loaded message wouldn't offend someone.

Sure, there is always the case to be made that people, especially Americans, have become hypersensitive to messaging. However, as marketers or communicators or consultants to public figures, it's our job to be aware of those hot buttons.

Equally important, on those occasions when mistakes are made, we need to help clients know when and what to apologize for. Kentucky Fried Chicken didn't need to apologize; pulling the advertisement was more than enough. U.S. Sen. Reid could have apologized to the American people; his statement clearly discredits the majority of Americans as being racist. The Outdoor Advertising Association ought to have apologized without clarification, especially because it knew exactly what it was doing.

The bottom line is that in a world where any communication might be amplified, marketers might be more sensitive to what those messages might be. If they aren't more sensitive, then they'll always risk having the message manage them more than they manage the message.

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