Thoughts on marketing & racism

TV programs get to do clip shows all the time, so why can’t I? This originally ran in Brandweek on April 16, 2007

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DON IMUS and Uncle Ben. Two icons emblematic of a very strange moment in how Americans and the people who market to them think about race. Call it cultural schizophrenia—we denounce racism but still find it commercially appealing.

If you’re one of those radicals that feels a person’s worth is not determined by skin color you’ve got to be happy about the feces storm that hit Don “idiot-headed ho” Imus. Not only was he denounced but he got bit in the wallet, too. While Procter & Gamble and GM dropping his show was more costly, in many ways the worst news for I-man was when Miralus Healthcare, a.k.a. “Head-On,” pulled its ads. Once they left, pretty much the only sponsors remaining were bail-bond shops and “Smiling Bob.” I mean, the only thing worse than that would be getting canned by MSNBC and CBS. Oh, wait a minute.

While the Imus incident may have been nothing more than gross stupidity followed by a media feeding frenzy, there’s a lot bigger proof of change in the land.

Thirty-five years ago, when New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm ran for the presidency, her dual status as a woman and an African American made her into the ultimate political novelty act. Now we have Obama-mania. On the other side of the aisle, more than a few in the GOP still see Colin Powell as the party’s great black hope. Then there’s Massachusetts. The Bay State, which has had so many racial problems that its motto could be “Some of our best friends are black,” has seen fit to elect a governor with more melanin than most of the people who voted for him. All this is reverberating with marketers. Even Disney—ever a following indicator of cultural standards—is releasing a movie starring a black princess.

And yet.

The past month has also seen the return of Uncle Ben, a brand mascot with deep roots in that time and place when African Americans were not paid for their lifetime of employment. Actually it’s no longer “Uncle” Ben—Masterfoods USA dropped his honorific when it promoted him to CEO of his eponymous rice company. Unfortunately this brand retrofit didn’t give him a last name. Try calling your CEO by his first name. Now try to imagine doing so before you quit your job. While Ben’s promotion is certainly a good thing, it didn’t quite cover up his relationship to another uncle, one named Tom.

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Now Disney, ever the lagging barometer of cultural cues, is considering re-releasing the movie, Song of the South.

At a recent shareholders’ meeting Disney chairman Bob Iger said, “The question of Song of the South comes up periodically; in fact it was raised at last year’s annual meeting. And since that time we’ve decided to take a look at it again because we’ve had numerous requests about bringing it out.” In case you’re not up on film history, the 1946 movie tells the story of a young white boy who goes to live on his grandparents’ Georgia plantation and is charmed by the stories of beloved black servant Uncle Remus. It’s never been released on video and hasn’t been shown commercially in the U.S. since 1986.

It’s easy to understand from a fiscal point-of-view why some marketers would want to bring these characters back. Racist or not, they have a strong nostalgic pull. Consumers described Uncle Ben as having “a timeless element to him, we didn’t want to significantly change him,” Vincent Howell, president of the food division at Masterfoods USA and an African American, told The New York Times.

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The argument can be made that rebranding Ben or recalling Remus is a way to redeem them, but this is a bit of a stretch. Even our modern, deracinated Aunt Jemima—who’s now portrayed as Betty Crocker meets Oprah—still reeks of “de ol’ folks at home.” There are some roots that no amount of dye can cover up.

If marketers really insist on bringing these images back, they should begin with full disclosure and show where these characters came from, how they were used and why they’re being brought back. Barring that, then Ben, Jemima, Betty, Remus and that nameless guy on the Cream of Wheat box should follow Mr. Imus off the air.

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10 Worst Marketing Blunders of 2009

1) NBC GOES ALL LENO ALL THE TIME

Edsel … New Coke … Lenovision.

NBC has joined the immortals of marketing stupidity. This year the molting peacock network and president Jeff “Have They Fired Me Yet?” Zucker decided to turn five of the primest pieces of prime-time real estate — the hour between 10 and 11 PM from Monday through Friday — into the Jay Leno hour.

The result? A 28% drop in viewership (through mid-November). This has not only killed network revenues but done in affiliates who have no lead-in for their late news casts.

Despite this, Jeff “10% Of Americans Are Unemployed and I’m Not?” Zucker recently said that all is going according to plan. “Right now, in terms of its performance on the television network, at NBC, in terms of ratings it’s doing exactly what we thought it would do.” Comcast recently bought NBC in what must have been an attempt to copy the government’s cash for clunkers program. Comcast shareholders can now only hope they are being lied to. The worst case scenario is that Mr. Z believes what he is saying.

On the plus side:

  1. It is now possible to buy every ad slot during the Leno show for less than the cost of a house in Detroit.
  2. The federal witness protection program is using guest slots to hide people.

2) TIGER, TIGER BURNING BRIGHT

(Originally #9 — Who knew?)

Because I have a really limited imagination I thought the big celeb marketing mishap story of the year would be Michael Vick’s failed attempt to become a spokesperson for PETA. Then along came Tiger who prefers women with bad nose jobs to the Swedish bikini model he is actually married to. The story broke on Nov. 27th, when Mrs. Woods apparently decided to prove her own golfing expertise. This was unfortunate for Accenture which two days earlier had kicked off its annual Tiger campaign. A print ad which ran in the Nov. 30th Wall Street Journal featured Tiger Woods walking in the rough under the headline: “The road to high performance isn’t always paved.” And watch out for the trees and fire hydrants. Accenture has since declawed its Tiger connection.

UPDATE: File this under “Pull the other one, it’s made of wood.”

“We decided several months ago to discontinue Gatorade Tiger Focus, along with some other products to make room for our planned series of innovative products in 2010,” Gatorade spokeswoman Jennifer Schmit said in an e-mailed statement.

3) BANKERS CUT BONUSES, INCREASE SALARY & BLAME JESUS

First the banking industry made a big show of cutting the obscene bonuses it was paying itself for going on the dole. Meanwhile they hoped no one would notice the allegedly eliminated bonuses were now being paid as plain old salary.

But wait … that’s not all!

Apparently still feeling that their efforts to destroys the economy were still underappreciated, bankers started claiming Jesus wanted them to do it.

“The injunc­tion of Jesus to love others as our­selves is an endorse­ment of self-​interest,” Goldman’s [inter­na­tional adviser Brian] Grif­fiths said Oct. 20, his voice echo­ing around the gold-​mosaic walls of St. Paul’s Cathe­dral, whose 365-feet-high dome towers over the City, London’s finan­cial dis­trict. “We have to tol­er­ate the inequal­ity as a way to achiev­ing greater pros­per­ity and oppor­tu­nity for all.”

How much LSD do you have to take to interpret Scripture this way? However much it is, it is certainly being passed out at all the best financial institutions. Two weeks later, Barclays CEO John Varley spoke at the venerable St. Martin-in-the-Fields and tried to wrap the Bible around his bonus.

“There is no conflict between doing business in an ethical and responsible way and making money. We make our biggest contribution to society by being good at what we do. Profit is not satanic.”

I guess it all depends on who gets to determine how we define ethical and responsible. Perhaps Varley could have gotten away with this specious argument had he not added this gloss to the text after the service: “Is Christianity and banking compatible? Yes. And is Christianity and fair reward compatible? Yes.” (Not a good sign when a banker can’t even get his verb and subject numbers to add up.) Hey John, can we parse the word “fair” for a moment?

I believe the renowned 20th century theologian Ray Price put it best when he asked, “Would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show?”

4: GM EXPLAINS AWAY ITS “LITTLE PROBLEM”

In the face of the greatest single corporate collapse in the history of the world, GM rolled out an ad that inadvertently explains the company’s failure.

It is a veritable symphony of weasel words.

Let’s be completely honest, no company wants to go through this.

By the end of that first sentence it is clear this ad has no intention whatsoever of living up to that initial clause. You can tell because the final pronoun is never made specific. That “this” covers billions of sins. It implies we all know what has happened without saying what that was. It is everything to everyone and thus means nothing. Is “this” an utter failure of leadership? Or is it an inability to have even the vaguest understanding of the needs of the marketplace? Sadly, I suspect “this” is “an economic calamity no one could have foreseen” – the preferred phrase of everyone from Alan Greenspan to, well, the Detroit-based car makers. There is no taking responsibility anywhere in this ad just as there has been no taking responsibility at GM for decades. (Read more here)

5) VOGUE: BLACKFACE IS THE NEW BLACK

Vogue The October issue of French Vogue had a photo spread of the very Caucasian Lara Stone painted head to toe in dark make-up. Vogue went with the old “I’m sorry if you found my words insulting” defense and told the Daily Mail “it was unaware it had caused offence, but said it could not give any further comment.” (Worth noting: Italian Vogue’s issue for the same month was filled with actual Black women.) In a keeping up with the KKK move inflight magazine EasyJet ran a photo spread featuring brooding generic models dressed in black POSING IN FRONT OF BERLIN’S HOLOCAUST MONUMENT.

Fortunately for me marketers just can’t seem to figure out that Nazi = Bad. This years examples:

LATE BREAKING STUPIDITY UPDATE: NYT runs gift guide with special section devoted to:

“Somali fashion, do-it-yourself henna kits, children’s books that draw inspiration from the lives of Barack Obama and Sonia Sotomayor: it’s not hard to find gifts created for and by people of color this holiday season.” (emphasis added)

Why it’s almost like they’re real people!

6) CHOCOLATES SHAPED LIKE PRESIDENT OBAMA & MORE

CandyExpress said its commemorative Barack Obama heads would only be available for a limited time, unfortunately it wasn’t limited enough. Off the top of my head I would say there are three things Mr. Obama should not be used to advertise: Chocolate, fried chicken (a German company did it), watermelon (that’s a yet). However, the Russians came up with a bunch of things I’d never thought of. They used our President to advertise a tanning salon, a dental clinic and pre-packaged ice cream with the slogan “Everyone’s talking about it: dark inside white!” The bars have a chocolate-flavored center embedded in a layer of vanilla.

Obama Daughters DollsHowever these are just idiocy, the sheer stupidity award goes to Beanie Baby maker Ty. First they decided to sell two new dolls named Sweet Sasha and Marvelous Malia. Then they tried to deny they were named after America’s First Kids.

“[We] chose the dolls’ names because “they are beautiful names,” not because of any resemblance to President Obama’s daughters, said spokeswoman Tania Lundeen. “There’s nothing on the dolls that refers to the Obama girls,” Lundeen said. “It would not be fair to say they are exact replications of these girls. They are not.”

Sorry dear, but in order to get away with a lie like that you have to be a bank.

7) STUPIDITY? THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT

The word of the year really should have been app. The ubiquitous iPhone has spawned an industry of companies trying to market their wares by providing allegedly useful and/or humorous apps. To paraphrase Pogo, this confronted Pepsi with an insurmountable opportunity. The company released an app called Before You Score for its Mountain Dew AMP brand. The app gives you 24 different types of women (sorority girl, etc.) and offers “appropriate” pick-up lines for each type and other similar information.

Not to be outdone, LawFirms.com, a legal referral site, decided to get attention with a campaign featuring the (fictitious) app iCoyote. It “packs all of the features of a real immigrant smuggler into the iPhone. Using GPS, navigate through the patrol packed desert without worrying about that pesky Border Patrol.”

The app included a variety of features such as:

  • iWife. It “will take care of finding marriage prospects for you. Aggregating and analyzing data from a variety of online sources [to] match you up with only the most promising US Citizen candidates.”
  • iLawyer. “Homeland Security is Cracking down. Not to worry. With iLawyer, you can find an attorney to convince the immigration court to grant Asylum Protection. A Green Card is a finger swipe away.”
  • Weather Monitors. “The desert can get hot, and trying to cross it when it’s 120 degrees is not fun. Get up-to-date weather forecasts to pick the right time and ensure your trip to the US is comfortable and fun-packed.”
  • City Statistics. “San Antonio? Albuquerque? Tucson? San Diego? Not sure which is best? Get unemployment statistics, current average wages, cost of living expenses and more. Get the job you want, at the right wage, tax free!”

8 AMERICAN GIRL SELLS “HOMELESS GIRL” DOLL

Your child can learn that the homeless are just like real people once you spend $95 to buy her a “less fortunate” playmate for her other American Girl doll(s). The latest addition to the American Girl line of how-do-you-justify-it-ly expensive dolls is Gwen Thompson. Ms. Thompson

wheelchair and her mother Janine fell on hard times when her father lost his job; they later lost the house as they were unable to keep up payments. Soon after, Gwen’s father left them and they became homeless the fall before the start of the book’s events. Initially, Gwen’s mother has them live in their car until the winter comes; she then takes them to Sunrise House, a place for homeless women and children. Sunrise House helps them get on their feet and eventually get a new apartment.

And should you also want to teach the kid that the disabled are people too, American Girl also sells a wheelchair for $30.

9) KFC UNDERESTIMATES OPRAH’S POPULARITY

Why would you pay to have Oprah endorse your product if you didn’t know what the result be? In May the chain formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken paid Ms. Winfrey to discuss its new grilled chicken on her show. (This is part of an ongoing effort to rebrand KFC as someplace that serves something besides FC. By the time it’s over KFC will be Rhode Island Clam Shack. But I digress.) In addition to giving product to her audience — and how pissed were they? Other folks got a new car and they get a food experiment – viewers could go to a website and download a coupon for up to four free two-piece chicken meals with two sides and a biscuit. If there’s one thing the US loves more than Oprah, it’s Oprah and free food.

You’ll never guess what happened. OK, so maybe you will.

Several bajillion people downloaded the coupon and sprinted to the nearest KFC. Well, the food disappeared faster than a dollar bill on the floor of the Senate. As a result somefranchisees started refusing to accept the coupon, some told people the promotion was over for the day, some quickly pointed to the “while supplies last” clause, the more creative said that coupons with barcode numbers ending in “1234” are not valid. Look closely at the barcode below to see what that meant.

All this brought new meaning to the chain’s horrible new tagline: “Unthink What You Thought About KFC.”

Another chain, El Pollo Loco, moved smart and fast and sent out a twitter saying they’d accept the coupons on Mother’s Day. Soon Oprah was having to apologize for the stupidity and KFC issued rain checks to the disgruntled.

All of which goes to prove that whatever you have to pay Oprah, the ROI is REAL!

10) (tie) BLACKWATER, NIGERIA & SWINE INDUSTRY LAUNCH REBRANDING EFFORTS

  • In an attempt to change all the nasty connotations that go along with being mercenaries, Blackwater Worldwide changed its name to Xe. That’s pronounced zee, as in “zee idiots in marketing thought of it.”

Blackwater president Gary Jackson said in a memo to employees the new name reflects the change in company focus away from the business of providing private security. “The volume of changes over the past half-year have taken the company to an exciting place and we are now ready for two of the final, and most obvious changes,” Jackson said in the note.

That exciting place seems to include a lot of lawsuits.

“At international airports, in trains, in shopping malls, and almost everywhere, every Nigerian is a marked person,” Dora Akunyili, information minister and self-styled chief image maker said at the launch of the re-branding campaign this week. “We are pulled aside for questioning. We are seen as potential drug pushers or fraudsters. We are unfortunately denied the benefit of the doubt.”

  • Swine flu is no laughing matter. Especially if you’re the American Pork Association. They went into overdrive screaming about how it was hurting their sales and enlisted Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin who constantly referred to the “so-called swine flu.” Unfortunately humor trumps branding every time. Thus we got headlines like:

“We will call it Mexico flu. We won’t call it swine flu,” Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, a black-garbed Orthodox Jew, told a news conference Monday, assuring the Israeli public that authorities were prepared to handle any cases.

CIO writer and friend Al Sacco came up with this: Swine flu isn’t a scary enough name. It needs a slogan, too: “Pork Plague, the (Other) White Death,” for example.

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS

AMAZON DELISTS GAY AND LESBIAN BOOKS

The online retailer blamed an “employee in France” for a “software glitch” which oddly delisted gay and lesbian themed books from its search listings. (Example: Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain vanished, but not her book The Shipping News in which all the sex is hetero.)

Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as “adult,” the source said.

CRAIGSLIST CEO SAYS SITE HAS NO SEX RELATED ADS

“I would not describe any section of our site as ’sex related,’ ” [Craigslist CEO Jim] Buckmaster wrote in response to a series of e-mailed questions from the Globe. He acknowledged that Craigslist offers an “erotic services” section that should not include more than “legitimate escort services, sensual massage, exotic dancers, etc.,” but said that offers to exchange sexual favors for money are “strictly prohibited” and removed from the site.

SPECIAL PENGUIN OF IRONY CITATION:

THE WISCONSIN TOURISM FOUNDATION
had to change its name to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin

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BONUS: A few other totally wrong products from the year

Oprah-inspired study proves being a fat drunk is counterproductive

People who undergo gastric bypass surgery get drunk quicker and take longer to get sober.”

My favorite part of the story: John Morton, assistant professor of surgery at Stanford, got the idea for the study after appearing on Oprah to talk about gastric bypass. There he was inundated with questions from the audience about the increased impact of alcohol on people who’d had the operation.

This explain’s Dean Vernon Wormer’s famous advice: “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” It’s fat or drunk that’s the way to go.

Procter & Gamble v. Amway Distributors: Original “Great Satan” has its day in court

The wheels of justice grind slowly, even if you have more than 20 billion-dollar brand-names in your corporate pocket. A dozen years ago P&G sued a bunch of Amway distributors in Utah who — it was alleged — repeated “a false rumor linking the household-products company to a Satanic church.” Closing arguments were heard Friday.

Best quote from the story:

The jurors will not be asked to determine whether the Satan-worship allegation is true – both sides have agreed it’s not – but whether the hellish rumor harmed sales of P&G products.

Too bad. I would much rather have had to decide on that first issue.

The defendants defense is also rather good: They were just repeating a rumor they believed to be true. I forget, is idiocy a valid defense?

P&G has been so dogged by this rumor that it has devoted an entire section of its website to denying it.

Snopes has a great section on the entire story, of course. All of this dates back to whenever it was that some loon or another decided he (you know it was a he) could see a 666 in the company’s man in the moon logo — WHICH ALSO HAS 13 STARS ON IT!!!

Since then the bizarre rumor has continued to resurface. Different versions have the president of P&G as saying he worshiped The Dark Prince during an appearance on either The Phil Donahue Show in 1994 or The Sally Jesse Raphael show in 1998. This is what makes the story so laughable. Anyone with half-a-brain could tell you that this sort of admission is ONLY done on Oprah.

The other thing that refutes this whole thing is also painfully obvious: If P&G were in charge of marketing the Church of Satan then the Church of Satan would now be synonymous with fun, perky and very clean. Also it would have a new smell — Goodbye sulfur, hello Firebreze®.

In the interests of full-disclosure: I have been to Mordor … er, Cincinnati … and interviewed both Saruman and Lord Voldemort several times (that’s what you get to call A.G. Lafley and Jim Stengel when they like you). So I’m probably part of the conspiracy, too. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.

UPDATE: We’ll that didn’t take long. P&G 1, Amway-Types 0. Actually P&G $19.25 million, Amway-Types 0UCH.