When Marketing Campaigns Go Too Far

17 Dec When Marketing Campaigns Go Too Far

Imagine you’re a typical New Yorker on your way into work, and you see the above image on the subway. Disturbing, yes?

Worry not, however. New York was not taken over by Nazis, but by an overzealous advertising campaign Amazon launched to promote its new series, The Man in the High Castle. The show depicts an alternate version of history that posits the question “what if the Nazis and Japanese had won World War II and taken control of the U.S.?”

For some reason, someone at the company decided it would be a great idea to plaster a subway car running between Times Square and Grand Central Terminal with this imagery. You know, because it’s not like the United States is going through any sort of divisive turmoil right now, or anything.

Political climate aside, did someone perhaps once consider that the imagery might be considered offensive? It seems not.

Or, perhaps they did, and went with it anyway. The graphics certainly suit the tone of the show – provocative, bold, controversial. Certainly, the images were bound to raise awareness, even if they created a stir. And that they did: within short order, New York citizens, the mayor, and others branded the ads “irresponsible and offensive.”

Which brings the question: when does a company go too far with its marketing campaigns?

It’s a question that companies have been wrestling with for a while now. As organizations continue to seek ways to grab attention and position their products above their competition, advertisers and public relations managers have increasingly tried to be different or edgy. Often, their efforts cross a line between what’s acceptable and noticeable – and what’s simply in bad taste or the result of poor decision making.

I’ve had some experience in this area. Several years ago I did some work for a television production company that got into hot water while trying to promote some of its films. The company produced documentary-style short films and TV shows targeted at the 18 – 34 year old demographic. To promote these features, the company (not me, I have to say – I was unaware of this) decided to do something that would get its target audience’s attention.

A group of employees was sent to the Sundance Film Festival to represent the organization. Once there, they decided to blanket the town of Park City, Utah – including its storefronts, mailboxes, and public areas – with “promotional” graffiti. They plastered virtually everything they saw with posters and messages pertaining to the company’s shows — in the resort community of Park City during one of the nation’s most prestigious film festivals.

I get what they were trying to do: upset the status quo and make a mark on the visitors to the quiet mountain town. In theory, it sounds OK. And I suppose their passion and ingenuity should have been admired.

And maybe it would have been, if the “marketers” hadn’t managed to infuriate an entire community, annoy festival attendees, and get arrested for defacing public property. They managed to do all of this without drumming up any noteworthy publicity. We had to pay their bail, all thanks to a grassroots campaign that backfired.

The lesson is that while cleverness and in-your-face tactics can have their place, they must be balanced out by tried-and-true strategy that takes into account both the needs and sensitivities of an audience. There is a line that should not be crossed. The problem is that it’s often difficult to see the line – especially when one is so focused on doing everything one can to raise awareness.

I suspect that Amazon and the other company I mentioned were aware of the line, but chose to push past it, and it backfired. At least Amazon chose ads that were thematically complementary to the show they were promoting. Of course, that still doesn’t excuse the fact that for every person who gained awareness about The Man in the High Castle, there may have been one or two others who ended up being simply turned off by the show. In the other company’s case, not only were the actions of the employees wrong, they went against the positive youth culture that the company’s shows were trying to express.

Both companies forgot one simple rule: while it’s good to take your marketing campaigns to the edge, be sure not to push them – or your customers – over that edge. Doing so will cause both to disappear completely.

Image: Getty






Pete Larmey
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