Telling stories

When is a “Planned Mistake” Just a Mistake?

Posted by southwrite on May 27, 2014

Image by flickr user Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Image by flickr user Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Writers more than anyone know that not everything in the media is what it appears to be. That’s particularly true when it comes to businesses seeking attention for their products. These days an increasing number of big companies are devoting vast resources to producing pranks and publicity stunts designed to circumvent traditional advertising.  Called “prank-vertising,” or publicity stunts, these “planned mistakes” can sometimes turn out to be mistakes in themselves.

As one advertising executive said to me: “Companies don’t control their own brands. Brands are controlled by consumers because the control is an emotional one. It’s a psychic one. It’s the attitude that people have toward a brand and those things are defined by the consumer. They’re not defined by the corporation. That’s especially true in a social media era.”

Prank-vertising can help companies distinguish their brands, or not

Randy Southerland, Contributing Writer

It’s called “prank-vertising” or even “planned mistakes” — to distinguish them from all the unplanned ones.

Whatever ad folks call them, they’re the unpredictable stunts that companies use to gain attention and buzz in a crowded and often incoherent social media driven world.

JCPenney won attention during this year’s Super Bowl with its “drunk tweets.”

When the brand unleased a flurry of nearly incoherent messages, many quickly took note. After thousands of retweets — including some from large companies running Super Bowl ads — the company revealed the “mistakes” were result of trying to type on a phone’s tiny keyboard while “wearing mittens.”

“I do think there has been a renewed trend [of doing stunts] for quite a bit,” said Ashley Grice, managing director at Iris Atlanta. “At least since the beginning of 2013, there has been a fairly consistent number of firms employing nontraditional ruses in this manner to garner attention for brands and products. Some of them are pretty wild rides and some are more tame, but it seems to be consistently out there.”

When stunts work, they can seem brilliant.

Remember Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar selfie? The self-taken picture of the actress posing with a bunch of other celebrities seemed spontaneous and well suited to the event.

The public soon learned that it was carefully planned and executed as part of an agreement with smartphone maker Samsung to promote its Galaxy handset during the event.

The company seems to have gotten its money’s worth. The tweet was seen by 37 million people worldwide, according to Twitter numbers. In contrast, 43 million viewers tuned in to the actual broadcast.

Ad experts agree that the stunt or prank is nothing new. It’s been going on in one form or another since well before the “Mad Men” era.

While the tools and media channels are different, the reasons for pranking are the same as ever. Some of the best pranks latch onto an event or situation that has already attracted a lot of attention.

“These companies want to take advantage of an event where there is already a lot of buzz and media attention,” said Mitch Leff, president of Leff & Associates.

Sporting events such as the Super Bowl, Final Four or Olympics and media spectacles like the Oscars are natural platforms for staging pranks. There is already attention focused on the event and if a company can provide a narrative or event that is relevant and attention-grabbing it can garner some real buzz, Leff said.

Companies decide to channel their advertising dollars into pranks for a variety of reasons. JCPenney spent far less sending out its “drunk tweets” than the companies that were actually buying advertising on the Super Bowl broadcast.

“It is a reflection to some degree of the very crowded messaging marketplace that exists,” said Rob Baskin, senior communications counselor and agency managing director at Weber Shandwick’s Atlanta office. “Companies and brands have to work very hard through a variety of different platforms and channels to try to reach their audiences.”

The key is to separate the brand from others in the public mind, but that requires creating a solid identity in the first place, Baskin said.

“In order to achieve a breakthrough and to get through the clutter of all those messages out there, nontraditional ways can be particularly effective — especially if they’re coming from a more conservative company that is showing a different side of itself,” Grice said. “If it’s something that is unexpected coming from a company people will stop and take notice of that.”

Iris Atlanta staged a prank to promote The Weather Channel’s new Android smartphone app.

A bus stop shelter was outfitted with hidden sprinklers that doused bystanders (all of whom were actors) in a surprise downpour. The only person to escape the drenching was the actor who checked the app and hurriedly opened his Weather Channel umbrella.

“The idea was surprising consumers while underlining how important accuracy is in [predicting] the weather,” Grice said. “It got a lot of attention and views for that particular accuracy app, which was important to them.”

A successful stunt must capture the imagination of the audience while also enhancing the brand.

“The issue is not so much the stunt or the event as whether or not it is relevant to the audiences,” Baskin said. “The Ellen [selfie] during the Oscars clearly had a degree of relevance. People take selfies all the time and anyone who watches the Oscars is into celebrity culture.”

While the most successful pranks get a lot of attention, many advertising stunts are no more effective in enhancing a brand than more conventional advertising. It’s unclear whether JCPenney’s “drunk tweets” had any lasting value for the company.

“I think it was ill-advised,” said David Fitzgerald, president of Fitzgerald+CO. “Yes, it got people talking, but at the end of the day how do you feel about the brand?”

While a social media-based stunt can reach a wide audience and enhance a brand’s image, it can also do a lot of damage when it goes wrong.

That happened when the New York Police Department launched its #MYNYPD Twitter hashtag.

The idea was to share tweets and photos of police officers doing good around New York City. For an already controversial government agency, it proved a gift for critics.

“People started using the hashtag and posting all these pictures of police brutality and these negative images of police officers and it went entirely the other way,” Leff said. “People picked it up in other cities. What was supposed to be a nice way for the New York Police to show how well-loved they are by people in New York went entirely negative.”

This story originally appeared in the May 23 edition of The Atlanta Business Chronicle

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