Saturday, January 26, 2008

One Man's PR Blunder is Another's Hilarious Stunt

Shel Holtz culled a list of Public Relations based blunders from Money's 2007 "101 Dumbest Moments in Business" for his blog. It's an interesting list, but this is the one I'm most interested in:

#21—The Cartoon Network hires a marketing agency to place electronic lightboards promoting its characters. In Boston, they’re mistaken for bombs, creating a crisis.

I am a fan of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the show being advertised (or I was, when it was still funny), and I must say that for its target demographic that stupid stunt was pretty funny both for the original intent of the campaign (an in-joke revolving around a pair of popular characters in the series, the Mooninites, and their proclivity for "signaling" with their middle fingers) and because of the way it went so horribly awry in Boston (and things going horribly awry is the whole basis of ATHF's humor -- well, when it has a basis). ATHF's viewership was sagging because of a couple of sub-par seasons and it was not the campaign, but rather the free publicity given to the news about the blunder, which got at least me to go back and give ATHF a second chance. This stunt worked in because to ATHF fans, that stunt was indeed a signal. It at least made me think: "hey, they might be doing funny stuff again." Comedy Central and their Advertising and PR vendors understood their audience.

To Money and Mr. Holtz this is a blunder. This may in fact be the case when the costs of dealing with the legal mess are taken into account, versus any profit gains made from the publicity (and if the PR folks get involved with any criminal charges because of the stunt, that's really not worth it). However, if ultimately these costs were not excessive, it's not so obviously a blunder to me. For the target demographic, it was a good idea that went wrong in just the right way (sticking it to the man and getting busted by the man is something the ATHF audience fully empathizes with).

The other entries in the list fail the "there's no such thing as bad publicity" test, because they really reflect badly on the company even in the eyes of their target demographic -- with the exception of:

#17—Redux is warned by the FDA to rename its energy drink, which was called Cocaine. It was renamed to Censored, then NoName.

Which was a blunder of similar character to the ATHF blunder. From a cost perspective it may not have been worth making the mistake (especially if they had to recall already packaged product), but the publicity of the SNAFU works in the brand's favor with its demographic for much the same reason the ATHF blunder does.

(An aside: why was Wikipedia on the list? It's not even really a business, by its own self definition. Its nonprofit, user-driven nature and the cultural and academic trust issue really should have been explored thoroughly. I'll try to get to that in a future post. Otherwise, an interesting list for anyone involved with any business large or small, as is much of the rest of the full 101.)

3 comments: said...

Witnessing the the Cartoon Network's Boston bomb scare from Atlanta, it also seemed to me they were getting weeks of publicity with no real harm done.

But, Shel Holtz set me straight. (I believe his podcast on this is still available.) Per Holtz: the city was shut down; major bridges closed and a section of the Charles River was closed as was the airport prompting horrible traffic problems, delaying flights around the country, and angry residents. Turner had to issue an apology -- never good. Media went off on stories of "corporate greed" at the expense of residents. It cost the city of Boston a ton of money to deal with.

From my unaffected locale here in ATL, I kept thinking, "wow they are getting so much press for that stunt!" But, I gotta admit now, Holtz is right -- it was a debacle.

Perspective is a fascinating thing!

Anyway -- cool blog!

LHOOQtius ov Borg said...

I knew about the Boston shutdown (I have friends there), and the issuing of an apology, and the "corporate greed" angle.

My main point was that none of that was bad from the point of view of ATHF's demographic. Even some of the fans IN Boston though it was funny -- ATHF's demographic was also amused by how stupid it made the authorities look. Yes, the Boston Police would have been foolish not to respond, but there is an opinion that they overreacted. Many thought: "Don't they have a bomb squad that can come say 'nope, not a bomb' and not have to lock-down the ciy?"

Also, from the point of view of publicity: you in Atlanta needed Shel to set you straight. So, wasn't it worth possibly "losing" Boston to gain the rest of the country?

I did some of my own pranks in and around Boston when I was in college, including organizing a "Media Assault Group" falling-in in Harvard square -- but that was in the early 1990s and times were different (and we didn't have anything that looked like a bomb). The Boston cops still made all (ten) of us disperse our "formation."

Now, given the current state of "terror alert," I personally think that the campaign could have probably been handled better (for example, getting permission to place the devices but still making it look like a "cool, pranksterish" tactic), but without a real numbers cost-benefit analysis I'm not convinced it was truly a blunder.

Speak Media Blog said...

Did you see what Target did last/this week? Talk about a PR blunder! Check it out on my blog and leave a comment with your take on their stupidity!

Speak Media!!