The Single Worst Marketing Promo of 2007

An Unfortunate Detour from a Year of Progress

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Jonathon Feit Jonathon Feit
Last year was a big year for diversity in media, and 2008 may be starting out even more auspiciously: The pro-GLBT equality ad-industry organization Commercial Closet just yesterday announced that American Airlines is launching its first gay-themed advertisements ever, albeit after an inordinate delay considering how much attention the company draws to itself through GLBT community sponsorships. (More on that story to come.)

Besides the launch of this industry-leading blog series, there were serious gains and deplorable lows in the battle for media and marketing diversity. In February, Snickers canceled a controversial Super Bowl advertisement featuring two men nearly kissing then pulling away in what appeared to be disgust. On the upside, though, back in August Advertising Age reported that Levi's was consciously reaching out to the gay community by breaking new ground in producing an ad with an alternate ending: instead of the boy getting the girl, the boy gets the boy.

Then, of course, outside the GLBT space there was the Procter & Gamble "My Black is Beautiful" campaign, and its spinoffs, and the Dove "Real Beauty" campaign, and its spinoffs (and sequels).

Progress, progress--slow and steady. My colleagues and I have been saying all along that diversity requires discourse; we're not always going to agree about the direction or the form, but at least the conversation is being had.

Unfortunately, from time to time I find myself in the uncomfortable, almost hypocritical position of asking "Is there too much of a good thing?" I am an unabashed liberal (socially, not fiscally), but how far is too far to go in the effort to raise awareness about causa celebre? I hope this post "nips in the bud" any such occurrence for 2008. (Pun intended--read on)

Besides diversity, 2007 was also undoubtedly the year of the environment. Conservation is in vogue now -- let's hope it stays that way. You know what doesn't help the conservation cause, though? I'll tell you: Wastefulness. Inefficiency. Destruction of natural resources just to make a point.

Congratulations! In my hunt for the most outrageous example of advertising gone awry -- call it the point at which even my liberality falls away, and marketing innovation becomes a crying shame -- I've arrived at the single worst marketing ploy of 2007. And worst of all, this half-thought-out effort is brought to you, in part, by the Magazine Publishers of America!

Just a couple weeks ago, I received a cardboard tube from a group called the Abundant Forests Alliance. The outside of the package (which my dog destroyed -- how clich� is that?) read something like "Open Immediately. Your future is alive and well inside."

Curious. Intriguing.

So I opened the tube, and what did I find?

I kid you not, an ACTUAL TREE.

Inside this cardboard tube was a little sapling in a plastic baggie with dirt around the roots. The enclosed marketing copy indicated that the plant was a gimmick for a campaign called "Plant It Forward," was designed to showcase ways to counteract paper usage: "Plant and enjoy the enclosed tree seedling, or pass it along to a co-worker. It's one of the many ways to Plant It Forward for abundant forests and a healthy magazine industry."

The Abundant Forests Alliance, by the way, sponsored this past year's American Magazine Conference.

Wait. Seriously? An "environmental advocacy" group is MAILING LITTLE TREES to fight AGAINST WASTING trees and paper? Does that make ANY SENSE to ANYONE? (In a future post, I'll try to get "Rod Lowman, President"�who signed the enclosed letter�to explain his hypocritical rationale.)

Besides the fact that many of these cardboard tubes will never be opened, or will be lost in the mail, or will be irradiated against anthrax, etc., wouldn't it be a better use of time, resources, and -- oh I don't know -- LITTLE TREES, if the postage spent to send around those tubes were instead invested to PLANT the trees? Obviously the MPA sold this organization a mailing list, which is how they found me. Would it have been so hard to buy my email address instead of my mailing address, let me know a tree had been planted in honor of my magazines, and in the process save the following:
  • Postage
  • Cardboard (the tube)
  • Paper (the marketing copy)
  • Plastic (the baggie)
  • The TREE.
I'm no marketing genius, but I am the campaign's ideal consumer -- a liberal, an activist, a California boy born and raised (read: tree hugger). It is therefore with a heavy, confused heart that I nominate the "Plant It Forward" campaign for whatever is our industry's analogy to a Razzie award, recognizing utter neglect of forethought in the execution of a promotional campaign.
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