Just Lovin’ It (Not) – Part 2. McDonald’s chokes on its social media initiative

January 26, 2012

When will brands with a corporate reputation problem finally realise that social media – whatever its siren attractions – is not for them?

Not yet, as evidenced by the so-called “McFail” initiative. Last week, McDonald’s (yes, the Brand the World Loves to Hate, see my earlier post), bought two “promoted tweets” – Twitter’s answer to generating advertising revenue. The aim, apparently, was to persuade McDonald’s customers – those presumably with an excess of serotonin in the bloodstream – to share their happy-clappy experiences with the world.

Surprise, surprise, the clickable Twitter “hashtag” McDStories was (all too easily) purloined by mischievous malcontents. Very soon, instead of reading about McNuggets like Grandma used to make them (not), we were subjected to tsunami-force tirades on alleged animal-welfare abuse, wage slavery, food poisoning induced by McD fare and graphic descriptions of the bodily symptoms that accompany it.

By about 1400 hours Eastern Seaboard Time, D-Day, Operation McDStories had been ignominiously aborted. “Within an hour, we saw that it wasn’t going as planned,” explained a baffled Rick Wion, McDonald’s US social media director. “It was negative enough that we set about a change of course.”

Too right, Rick: a 180 degree one, to avoid losing your job.

Before you ask what planet Rick and his McD chums live on, let me explain: it’s the same one inhabited by the folk at Dr Pepper (owner, Coca-Cola), Nestlé, Wendy’s and Qantas. All of these brands have, at various times, lived under the narcotic delusion that social media is a marcoms nirvana utterly divorced from the everyday travails of brand management – and experienced brutal cold-turkey on discovering it is not.

When they go well, social media campaigns are a dream: they inexpensively capture the zeitgeist. But the gains are purely tactical, while the reverses, however infrequent, tend to have asymmetrical, strategic consequences. Why? Because negative high-profile media coverage brings the feckless actions of Rick and people like him to the immediate attention of their CEOs, for all the wrong reasons. If McDonald’s chief Jim Skinner was previously unaware of Wion’s existence, he is no longer. #McDStories has, with one fell blow, managed to poleaxe Jim’s precious Good News story: burgeoning corporate growth in Q4. Not great for Rick’s career advancement, I suspect.

Advertisers mull the hidden costs of child-proofing the web

September 1, 2010

The extension of the Advertising Standards Authority remit to corporate websites and social media content has not come a moment too soon.

The self-regulatory principle – and therein, the ability of advertisers to deflect calls for an unwieldy statutory alternative – is only as robust as its weakest link. And this was a very weak link – so flimsy that unscrupulous malefactors within the industry could, and did, drive a coach and horses through the CAP code. Since 2008, the ASA – which enforces CAP – has received more than 4,500 complaints about online content abuse. To which the lame – but unavoidable – rebuttal has been: that’s not our affair.

No doubt as billed, the new CAP code revisions comprises some of the most ambitiously scoped regulation in the world. The devil, of course, will be in policing the detail. There are at least two areas of concern here.

Punitive sanctions are notoriously more difficult to enforce online than they are with strictly regulated traditional media. The ASA has shrewdly enlisted Google’s help (Google is also supplying seed-corn capital to prime the pump of wider regulatory coverage). Among its options are to remove paid-for search ads linked to persistent offenders and, if necessary, to escalate the pressure by inserting the ASA’s own “name and shame” search ads opposite the offending site. This, of course, does not have the same force as an outright ban.

More subtle is the issue of scrutinising what constitutes code-breaking content and what does not. Nowhere, it seems, in the newly revised code is there a precise definition of “marketing communications”. Possibly for good legal reason. The boundary between self-promotion and “free editorial comment” is often a difficult one to draw. Nevertheless, the penalty in not defining it precisely will be a slow and – for the sometimes unwitting perpetrators – painful and expensive learning curve while case histories are built up. I doubt that the six-month induction period before the new restrictions are fully implemented will be long enough for the industry to get up to speed.

Let’s look at a rather alarming example of the depth of industry ignorance. ASA chairman Chris Smith, taking his cue from David Cameron’s warning about the sanctity of family values, portrays the revised code as having “the protection of children and consumers at its heart.” Coca-Cola recently, and notoriously, fired it digital agency, Lean Mean Fighting Machine, over a Facebook promotion for Dr Pepper that badly miscarried. No doubt the agency thought it was being smart and edgy when it inserted a cryptic reference to hardcore pornographic movie Two Girls One Cup into the copy. But the reference was wholly inappropriate for the 14-year old girl who ended up reading it – and whose mother subsequently blew the whistle on Coke’s irresponsible behaviour. Coke fired the agency and apologised fulsomely. But the chilling thing was Coke clearly had no idea what the reference meant, and no idea what its agency was up to. If an advertiser of this sophistication can make such an elementary blunder, what hope is there for everyone else?

The upshot of these revised regulations will be to promote a host of new hirings. At the ASA, to sift through the prodigious number of case studies generated; and at advertisers and their agencies, to monitor the new boundaries of acceptability.

Coke mired in legal wrangles over Glaceau Vitamin Water and Dr Pepper

July 26, 2010

Dr Pepper isn’t the only Coca-Cola brand to cause offence to consumers. Glaceau Vitamin Water is now facing a federal class action in the United States, which could end up costing the corporation millions of dollars and considerable damage to its reputation.

Glaceau is notorious for its “irreverent” (for which read “silly”) and cynical posturing. But that’s not what has landed Coke in deep water, or not overtly. Some folk evidently believe Glaceau has been peddling phony health benefits when, in reality, it is nothing more than sugar water with a few vitamins thrown in. In other words, far from preventing “age-related eye disease” (as the brand has claimed), its only durable side-effect is to make you fatter, if you consume enough of it.

The stakes are higher than they seem. Success for the plaintiffs would make Coke appear little better than a huckster apothecary hawking snake oil. But it will be years before we know the result – in all probability.

While on legal matters, I hear things have turned nasty at Coke over the Dr Pepper digital foul-up. Lean Mean Fighting Machine, the agency responsible, has resorted to lawyers after Coke decided to terminate its newly-won Diet Coke account without (as LMFM sees it) adequate financial compensation.

UPDATE 27/7/10. Legal fisticuffs have now ceased on the Dr Pepper/Diet Coke accounts, with LMFM and Coca-Cola agreeing to go their separate ways.

The Curse of Cannes strikes again

July 19, 2010

They’ll shortly be calling it the Curse of Cannes. Win a gong at the International Advertising Festival and sooner or later you’re bound to bomb.

First there was the Old Spice Guy, who waltzed off with the film grand prix, only to walk slap-bang into a controversy over the brand’s lacklustre sales performance.

Now Lean Mean Fighting Machine, the first UK outfit to have won the Cannes interactive ad agency of the year award, has come a cropper with one of its major clients, Coca-Cola, after an embarrrassing foul-up over a Facebook promotion. I doubt that they will be remaining on terms for much longer.

Coke has had to pull the internet promotion, featuring its Dr Pepper brand, after it was accused of enticing children by making reference to a pornographic movie. From what I can understand, users had to give the company access to their Facebook status boxes, which then filled them with silly (but largely harmless) messages designed to give their internet mates a bit of a rise.

All went well, with over 160,000 people signing up, until a certain Mrs Rickman noticed that the profile of her 14-year-old daughter had been updated with a direct reference to a hardcore pornographic film, Two Girls One Cup (aka Hungry Bitches). Perhaps hardcore doesn’t do it justice: coprophagic fetishism would be a polite description of its main theme. Unfortunately for Coke, Mrs Rickman is an adept of social networking site Mumsnet. Result: uproar and a hasty pledge by Coke to can the promotion and mount a full-scale investigation.

Even then, Coke couldn’t get it right. To quote Mediaguardian:

‘She was offered compensation of theatre tickets for a West End show and a night in a London hotel.

“Fat lot of use to me, we live in Glasgow,” she said.’

Coke has admitted the nominal responsibility (with the extraordinary claim that it had approved the offending reference without realising its true significance). But I suspect it won’t be taking the blame.

For that we must look to LMFM, an offshoot of Tribal DDB which was set up six years ago and is chaired by advertising luminary Paul Bainsfair. You can’t be too careful with internet promotions. Someone is always watching over you. Even so, it was unusually bad luck for an agency which only won the account in spring – after it devised a successful April Fool’s Day ad for Coke. This time, the joke backfired.

AND IT GETS WORSE. I gather Coke, under the guise of reviewing its overall digital media strategy, is now considering sacking LMFM, full stop. Only this week, it landed the digital ad account for the Zero brand. For more insights into Coke’s ineptitude over its LMFM hiring see Jim Edwards’ post on bNet.

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