Calculating controversy: how far is too far?

Brands are always pissing people off, whether intentionally or unintentionally. One only need look at Hell’s Pizza’s or Tui’s advertising to know that. But as that old saying goes “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”, and in light of Burgerfuel’s billboard being taken down recently, we thought we’d look into whether that’s really true. Here are a few case studies and some insights from a PR company’s perspective.

On Sunday July 12 a complaint against Burgerfuel’s billboard advertisement for its ‘Greedy Bastard’ burger was upheld in part by the Advertising Standards Authority. The complainant said:

“I’m sure this humour appeals to the young adults it is trying to lure into its restaurant, but to force the name upon people in large type in public is not acceptable.”

The board upheld the complaint not necessarily on the grounds of the language which it said was used in a “light-hearted matter”, according to the Herald, but because it appeared on a billboard and was highly visible to the general public, including children.

Unfortunately we could not track down an image of the billboard.

One of the original purposes for this story was to find out the effect the removal of the Burgerfuel billboard had on the business, whether it was positive or negative and whether the press raised awareness of the product. But unfortunately Burgerfuel sent us a mostly generic response and didn’t respond to some of our questions.

Here’s what we were told by Burgerfuel’s communications team: “As a brand we’re all about having a good time and we never deliberately try to rile up the public as a marketing exercise. Since Sir Ed ‘knocked the bastard off’, this phrase has become a normal term in New Zealand society. People have been eating the Bastard burger in NZ for 20 years so we certainly didn’t foresee that any offence would be caused. The Greedy Bastard was on the menu as a limited edition special version of the Bastard, and by the time we received the complaint the billboard was already down so no action was required by us.”

We had a chat to the driving force behind Pead PR, Deborah Pead, to understand the ‘bad publicity’ issue from a PR viewpoint, seeing it seems to be a topical subject at the moment, and will be a talking point at the Marketing Association’s Brainy Breakfast this week.

She says some publicity stunts [not necessarily referring to to Burgerfuel’s case]can be hugely damaging to brand reputation and company morale. However the stronger the brand the more resistant it is to negative press. “Good leadership and smart PR skills will use the negative press as an occasion to fix the system for the good and promote the change, which will in turn make the brand even stronger. People are forgiving, they recognise that humans make mistakes. As long as people can see a genuine effort to check and change ways, and minimise the risk of repeating the mistake, a brand, person, product or service can survive bad press.”

Len Brown may be the only exception to this rule, she says. “Further, Oscar Wilde once said: ‘There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that’s not being talked about’. And that probably sums it up nicely.”

Pead gave some examples she could think of where bad or negative press turned into a positive. “The Marmite shortage was turned into the clever Marmageddon campaign or the abusive X Factor judges who quit affected audience ratings in the short term, but it ultimately got more people watching at the end of the day. Lewis Rd Creamery faced criticism over rebranding as ‘Breast Milk’ to support Breast Cancer Cure, but it ultimately raised awareness and was eventually hailed as savvy marketing.”

Hell Pizza’s campaign for its gourmet rabbit pizza is another success story StopPress has covered in the past. Its rabbit-skin billboard which was in Parnell via Barnes, Catmur & Friends and its cheeky lost and found posters generated plenty of interest, provoking vigorous debate on social media and leading to six complaints to the ASA (none of which were upheld). And like Pizza Roulette, the discussion was also picked up in international media, with TimeThe Daily Mail and many others featuring it.

“The billboard had its detractors, but most people would struggle to be offended. All the positive feedback we received and our sales results overwhelmingly shows that, with a 19 percent increase in sales from Easter last year,” Hell’s general manager Ben Cumming said earlier. “We never set out to offend people with our marketing, but we accept that, while trying to make people laugh and provoke discussion, it’s unrealistic to expect a 100 percent positive response.”

Pead says brands work hard to build a store of goodwill and when a misguided attempt at humour (or total misjudgement) generates publicity it can be an opportunity for a brand to “put things right”. The brand needs to take a proactive approach, put it right and say so. You see this often in the hospitality industry when a hotel or restaurant comes under attack by an amateur reviewer or guest. The brand fronts up, apologises, addresses the issue and makes it right and follows up. Politicians are renowned for ignoring this strategy.”

On that note, we are reminded of Sealord’s campaign featuring Heidi Montag, which didn’t exactly swim. But the brand listened to the upset public and removed Montag from the ad.

Facebook fans reacted positively to the move with many pleased their voices were heard.

An example of a brand which ignored the “putting right” strategy is Ekim Burgers in Wellington. Its owner Mike Duffy posting an angry rant over the businesses Facebook page in May after a customer private messaged the page saying her son may have got food poisoning from a burger from Ekim

Here’s his post:

Here’s what the customer said:

While it’s unclear how this incident affected Ekim’s business, word spread far and wide, even reaching international publications such as the Daily Mail. But either way it’s an interesting and rare case study of a brand not listening to its upset customers or being apologetic. Time will tell how it affects the business, but this writer is a Wellingtonian and while it was a little quieter at the Ekim joint after the incident, business seemed to be booming once again at the end of May.

Pead says a recent overseas example of a brand being a bit controversial is L’Oréal Professionnel UK’s campaign which encouraged women to visit their hairdressers ‘for a shag’. “Of course it was referring to the shaggy style haircut which bears the name, but there was a bit of uproar about it and caused some negative talk – consumers and also industry spokespeople said it was ‘sexualising women as playthings’. However it proved a good call as it was such an ‘everyday’ salon offer that the brand was promoting, it wouldn’t have got much consumer-focused publicity at all had it not gone down the cheeky route – certainly not a homepage feature in the Mail Online.”

Marketers generally are all for pushing boundaries but before a brand takes on a stunt/campaign that has the potential to offend and alienate potential customers, it first needs to assess the potential for backlash, she says. “And if led by social media or digital, the possibility for hi-jacking.”

She says in the world of digital and social media things can blow up in a good way and drive loads of conversation, or there can be mass backlash. “Brands need to be prepared for both.”

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