Mistakes, Apologies & Culture

Last week several brands made the news because of their recent advertising efforts. Two found themselves backpedaling away from controversy while one embraced past mistakes to claim a fresh start. But this wasn’t just about creative choices – those are always subjective – it was about having (or not having) an understanding of culture, not just your core customer.

Hyundai had to pull a spot in which a man tries to commit suicide by inhaling the exhaust fumes from his car, only to be thwarted because his Hyundai has 100% water emission instead of deadly carbon monoxide. In a perfect vacuum, one could see the cleverness of the idea, but ads don’t exist in a vacuum and the tide started rolling against Hyundai when a blogger wrote an open-letter to the car manufacturer and their ad agency explaining her feelings about the ad. Her father had successfully taken his own life in that way. Just a few days later, a study from the CDC was released showing that the suicide rates among middle-aged Americans has risen sharply. The New York Times in fact called out that data shows “[M]ore people now die of suicide than in car accidents.” Adding another macabre element to an ad that shows a man trying to take his own life with the aid of his vehicle. I’m not providing a link to the ad in question because it has been taken down.

Mountain Dew also had to deal with a controversial ad last week. A spot directed by Tyler the Creator, the front man of rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Now, Odd Future is not everyone’s cup of tea, and Tyler’s twitter account is not for the faint of heart (very NSFW). They are however quite popular with Mtn. Dew’s target consumer so getting Tyler and Co. to put together a spot makes sense. Again, I’m not linking to the spot because it has been taken down, but it involves a police lineup featuring four African-American males (all played by members of Odd Future) and a talking goat. So, yes, it’s absurdism, but it’s also an all African-American police lineup, which probably isn’t going to go over to well with some people. The ad also features an bruised and battered white female, who is being asked to identify the perpetrator of her injuries. It’s in fact the goat, who verbally threatens her to the point where she refuses to make an identification. Again, yes, absurd, but a setup in which a white woman has been badly beaten but is too scared to speak up and she looks at a group of African-Americans (and yes, the goat) is a bad idea. Really bad.

Both cases seem to me to be ones in which the brand was a little too insulated from culture. They seemed to lack a certain awareness of bigger issues that are shaping the public discourse, and when you put something out in public, it’s no longer “just for our fans,” it’s quickly available for everyone to see.

JC Penney, the newest client of Y&R New York, had a different problem. After trying several new business ideas they realized that their customers were not buying into the “new JC Penney.” Their response was a video I can show you. Nearly 1 million views in less than a week plus a lot of earned media and massive amounts of chatter in social media channels. Was all of it positive? No, but this spot wasn’t meant to be a solution, just a start. It was a brand saying, “Hey we tried something, it didn’t work, and we value your opinion as our customers.”

I didn’t graduate from Wharton business school, but I’d wager you could probably make an argument for the changes JC Penney tried to implement over the last 16 months or so. But that ultimately wasn’t the point. JC Penney shoppers have a certain mindset and set of behaviors and whether or not those are rational or irrational is besides the point. Nobody wants to be told, “no, you’re wrong for thinking the way you do.”  So rather than just quietly make the switch, JCP stood up and owned their ‘mistakes’ and addressed their critics and fans in an honest and straightforward manner. When you put out a video that does that, you’re far more likely to get the benefit of the doubt.

It’s not always possible to see every possible interpretation of an ad when you are making it, but putting it through a lens that goes beyond the creative and approaches it from a cultural perspective can have a lot of value.

Menth Lab; $1 million Kickstarter Projects; Ellen and JCP tell protestors where to stick it

The Big Idea:

Taking a stand. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement we’ve seen the power of people banding together, so it was no surprise that when the Susan G. Komen foundation denied funding to Planned Parenthood, they heard it from the public loud and clear. Cue backpedaling and half-hearted apologies. The message has been delivered – don’t underestimate the power of the people.

Brands often become their own worst enemy, fanning the flames of dissent with ill-conceived social media strategies (see McDonalds). Brands now seem to be in constant need of  crisis plans, if they aren’t simply retreating from consumer engagement of any kind. But apparently JC Penney didn’t get that memo.

The retailer was recently threatened with a boycott by OneMillionMoms for their use of Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson. Rather than cave, JCP told this group to buzz off. Soon it was the Onemillionmoms who were on the back foot as fans of Ellen rallied in support. The OneMillionsMoms Facebook page is currently being dominated by Ellen fans

In our current Us v. Y’all society, it won’t be possible for brands to please everyone, only to be true to their brand DNA. Doing so creates brand loyalists that are crucial to surviving the inevitable challenges.


Menth Lab


Breaking Rad

Terrific piece in the February issue of Fast Company on a Detroit program aimed at keeping kids from smoking, specifically targeting menthol cigarettes that are favored by African-American youth. The program brought together a diverse group of professionals – designers, health experts, entrepreneurs, entertainers and community leaders – under the auspices of Legacy, the group behind the “Truth” ad campaign. The results included a unique collection of cultural artifacts – basketballs, backpacks, New Era caps – that reclaimed the mint green color associated with menthol cigarettes.

Super Bowl Post-Mortem

This year’s Super Bowl featured the Patriots (Clint Eastwood, Bud’s American chronology ad, Battleship movie) and the Giants (Coke, Chevy, Madonna), and while New York won the game, it seemed like Madison Avenue lost. In general the critics, pundits and experts seemed to think that the spots were underwhelming, and while a lot was made of brands using hashtags and other social media tools, plenty of opportunities were missed there too.

The big surprises were the success of the H&M spot that featured a different kind of footballer, David Beckham; and the halftime performance of Madonna. Yes, these are two very popular individuals (and brands in their own rights), but not necessarily two names you’d associate with American football. Yes, soccer has made great strides in this country, but the stigma as a game for ‘softer’ athletes and little girls still lingers. As for the halftime show, this is a spot that in recent years has featured The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and The Rolling Stones – acts that are squarely directed at the white, male 45-60 demographic.

While Madge and Becks certainly appeal to a broad audience, a large portion of  that audience includes women and gays. And while their inclusion in the Super Bowl festivities is certainly warranted due to their broad appeal, one wonders what role their appeal to women and gays played in their success. By several measures, H&M’s ad was hailed as the winner, and Madonna’s performance paradoxically saw a huge spike in social comments, but also a huge drop in app usage providing interesting data for both traditional Super Bowl advertisers, but also for brands who never previously thought their consumers were watching the Big Game.

On a related note, you can check out my thoughts on how brands leveraged the Super Bowl via social media in my 2nd Screen Super Bowl executive summary. Look for the full report on the Super Bowl, Social TV and culture at the end of the month.

Social Media Week NYC

Next week is Social Media Week in New York, with more events than you could possibly attend. The event, which has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years received an official proclamation from Mayor Bloomberg to kick off this year’s event. I’m planning on attending the following panels and presentations:

How to Embrace the Metagame to Produce Long-Term Social Engagement

Dave Gray & The Connected Company: An Inventory of the Possible followed by Panel: Social Business by Design

AgencyWare: Agency as maker

Elisa Camahort Page on Rewriting Keystroke by Keystroke followed by Panel: The Dawn of Companion TV

Collaborative Storytelling: Transmedia and Social Media

Some of the most important cultural and industry trends will be discussed during Social Media Week, I’ll look to have a wrap up report on this later this month as well.

Kickstarter Project of the Week: On Your Mark, Get Set, Mow!

As you may know, each week I back a Kickstarter project that I find innovative, creative or in someway highlighting an interesting part of culture. This week I’ve chosen to back On Your Mark, Get Set, Mow!, a film about the world of lawn mower racing. The U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association has numerous sponsors, a 19-race season and has been broadcast nationally on FoxSportsNet. You can read more about this project here. In other Kickstarter news, a major milestone was reached this week for the platform. For the first time ever, a project received more than $1 million in funding. In fact, two projects reached that mark this week, the second did so in one day. That sounds like a possible tipping point for Kickstarter. It’s a platform to keep an eye on and one which might be interesting to utilize on behalf of a client.