Fashion house Valentino has apologized for its tacky press release sent Friday enthusing that actress Amy Adams was spotted at Phillip Seymour Hoffman's wake in New York City carrying one of their bags. In addition to misspelling the name of the bag, the Valentino rep included two photos of a grim-looking Adams – reportedly a good friend of the deceased – clutching the ridiculously expensive Italian bag.
The funereal fashion tie-in inspired outrage from fans, the media, and Adams' people, who issued a statement clarifying that the actress had nothing to do Valentino's insensitive stunt.
Although the immediacy of email and social networking means that any terrible idea a marketing team dreams up can be disseminated frighteningly quickly, PR stunts are an undeniable part of our culture and history. Six years before female models were paid to walk in the New York City parade smoking to sell the idea that cigarettes weren't just for men, a 1923 article in Crystalizing Public Opinion stated, “PR must create news...in order to appeal to the instincts and fundamental emotions of the public.”
“There’s greater pressure for all players in the industry, especially as the media and PR landscape is forever in flux and especially now with the addition of social media,” says Meghan Patke, executive director of Wagstaff Worldwide Inc. in Los Angeles. “A successful public relations executive has to be a jack of all trades and not be afraid to challenge themselves and truly think outside the box for their clients.”
But, she adds, “For us, beyond being first, our role is to ensure that our clients' message and story and brand is accurately and wholly represented by the media.”
More disturbing than the fact that companies are desperate for any publicity, good or bad, is that it's appearing increasingly obvious that the follow-up apology after an offensive PR stunt is a calculated element of the campaign, i.e., just another excuse to mention the product or client.
Is all fair in love and marketing? Check out some recent notorious marketing moves and judge for yourself.
8. The Rolling Stone Magazine Boston Bomber Cover
Over the summer, the once-cool music magazine put a heartthrobby photo of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, a spot normally reserved for people not famous for killing people (the Charles Manson cover notwithstanding).
In an article for the website of PR firm Strategic Vision, D. Johnson wrote, “It is the way that it is portrayed on the cover, giving Tsarnaev a rock star look, that has generated the outrage. But poor taste doesn’t mean it was a bad a publicity ploy. It wasn’t.
“The Rolling Stone cover was a great public relations move. The magazine has been declining in circulation and losing popularity to other trendier and online outlets. Many people had forgotten about the magazine. All of a sudden with an issue that hasn’t even hit newsstands yet, thousands are talking about it.” Sales of the August issue with the Tsarnaev cover were up by more than 100 percent compared to previous issues.
7. Fun Belfast Terrorism Movie Press Kit
In August, journalists were sent press packets promoting the Irish film A Belfast Story, about an Irish inspector investigating the murders of former IRA members, in “a box containing a bag of nails (for a nail bomb) and a balaclava [ski mask],” according to Empire magazine news editor Chris Hewitt, who tweeted a picture of the kit to his followers.
PR reps responded by severing ties with the movie, claiming the press kits was sent by the filmmaker, not their firm. Hewitt told the BBC, “I'm not going to see it. There's such a thing as bad publicity.”
6. AT&T's Twin Towers Tweet
On the last anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, AT&T tweeted a picture of the Twin Towers memorial on the screen of one of its phones with the tag “Never Forget.” It was retweeted more than 300 times by angry consumers before AT&T issued the de rigueur apology, saying, “The image was solely meant to pay respect to those affected by the 9/11 tragedy," which was clearly not true.
A few days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Craig Bida, executive vice president of Cause Branding and Nonprofit Marketing asked in an article for CommPRbiz whether it was now OK to use the horrific tragedy as a marketing opportunity. His answer? Absolutely:
“There has been some debate as to whether or not marketing linked to this national tragedy is appropriate—or a tasteless violation of principles of decency. Companies and brands (and the agencies that support them) are right to be concerned about being perceived as exploiting a searing national tragedy for corporate gain.
But given the fact that a decade has passed, that real needs persist related to the tragedy, and that consumer appetite for cause has never been stronger, we are at a point where companies can, and should, market around 9/11—provided they go about it in a principled and thoughtful way.”
Tying product to tragedy is not only acceptable, Bida argued, but marketers' patriotic duty:
“Based on research conducted by Cone over the past 20 years, now more than ever people expect companies to commit to meaningful ways to drive positive societal impact. As recently as 1993, only 66% of people thought it was OK for companies to link support for causes to marketing of products; today that number has risen to 88%.”
5. Golf Club's 9/11 Marketing Scheme
The Week reported that “A golf club in Wisconsin received threats of violence after it placed an advert in a local newspaper offering a commemorative $9.11 discount to mark the anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks. In a deal available for '9/11/13 Only!' Tumbledown Trails offered a 9-hole round at the $9.11 price, or a full 18 holes for $19.11.”
4. American Apparel Offers Coupon for “Bored” Sufferers of Hurricane Sandy
The clothing company announced a 20 percent off sale if shoppers typed "SANDYSALE" in the online checkout "in case you're bored during the storm." American Apparel ignored the outrage inspired by their hurricane victim sale at first and didn't apologize.
Gap did the same, suggesting shopping with its online retailer while stuck inside via Twitter.
An American Apparel rep told Fashionista later, however, “Of course we’d never mean to offend anyone and when we put the email out yesterday it came from a good place...retail stores are the lifeline of a brand like ours so when they are closed, we need to come up with ways to make up for that lost revenue. People forget how expensive it is to run a Made in USA brand like American Apparel, and if we made a mistake here it came from the good place of trying to keep the machine going–for the sake of our employees and stakeholders.”
Fashionista also pointed out that Lauren Moffat, Saks, and Steven Alan also tweeted invitations to shop during the storm.
3. Uh Oh, Pearl Harbor LOL
In what might have genuinely been a gaffe last fall, a Campbell Soup Company employee tweeted, “Take a moment to remember #PearlHarbor with us” with a goofy cartoon Spaghetti-O licking his lips and waving the American flag. The company later tweeted an apology.
2. PETA Tries to Make Timothy McVeigh's Last Meal Vegan
Perhaps one of the more shameless marketers in the history of the world, animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) campaign coordinator Bruce Friedrich sent this letter to the warden of the prison executing the Oklahoma City Bomber: "Now that the Federal Prison system offers a vegetarian meal plan, Timothy McVeigh should not be allowed to take even one more life. Make Timothy McVeigh's final meals meatless. Wiping meat off of all inmates' plates could help killers lose their taste for blood."
An earlier PETA campaign that thankfully, no media outlet would place, referenced the case of an Ohio woman who killed her baby by putting the child in a microwave. PETA's ad featured a side of pork in a microwave with the tagline, “Everybody's somebody's baby.”
1. The “Rolex Is Worth Living For” Owen Wilson Campaign
PETA is disgusting as hell, but I think the award for most tasteless, insensitive PR campaign ever goes to Rolex, which seized upon an opportunity to sell watches by crediting themselves as aiding in the recovery of Owen Wilson, a Rolex wearer, after his well-publicized suicide attempt. From the appalling press release:
“SEATTLE, WA – Rolex: Melrose Jewelers reports that, after a frightening suicide attempt in 2007, Rolex watches appeared to play an essential role in actor Owen Wilson’s recovery.
Although Owen Wilson has worn a Rolex GMT Master in the popular films Wedding Crashers and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, he chooses to wear a Rolex Submariner in his everyday life. It is not surprising that he would make such a choice. The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner originally was designed for diving and known for their resistance to water. The first Rolex Submariner was introduced to the public in 1954 at the Swiss Watch Fair. Copied by other watchmakers, the Rolex Submariner is recognized as a classic, and one of the most widely recognized luxury products in the world. The Rolex Submariner is part of Rolex’s Oyster Perpetual Professional line. After returning home from the hospital, Owen was captured by a photographer walking on the beach, wearing his Rolex Submariner. Later, he was seen riding his mountain bike in Santa Monica with the Rolex Submariner on his wrist. Obviously, the quality of a Rolex watch helped Owen realize and appreciate the quality of his own life."
You would think this is an excerpt from the Onion, but no.
“Wearing a Rolex Submariner and attending Rolex Benefits helped Owen Wilson realize his life was valuable and worth living. Once again, the precision and quality of a Rolex proves to be a lifesaver in more ways than one,” the release triumphantly concludes.