Oh Ship! Will the Carnival Ship-Storm Ever End?

Or Will Things Just Get Shippier and Shippier?

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As my colleague Natalie Zmuda reported last week, Kmart recently got in touch with its inner fifth grader and scored a viral-video hit. Initially a web-only spot, "Ship My Pants" has proved so popular (12 million YouTube views and counting as of this writing) that it's being ported to TV this week. Created by DraftFCB, it shows delighted Kmart customers enthusing about the department store's free-shipping program. (Can't find the pants you want in-store? Kmart will ship them free to your home.)

"I just shipped my pants, and it's very convenient!" says an old lady. "I can't wait to ship my pants, Dad!" says a little boy to his proud father.

Credit: Kelsey Dake

As Natalie noted, clearly America loves a good poop joke.

Good for Kmart, pivoting off the Zeitgeist like that. Because so far, 2013 has been the Year of the Branded Poop Joke -- although thanks almost entirely to one marketer: Carnival, the cruise-ship conglomerate.

You know the story: Carnival can't seem to get its ... ship(s) to together. In February, we all started getting inundated with headlines like "Feces, water reported on floor of disabled Carnival cruise ship in Gulf of Mexico" (Fox News) and "Lawsuit filed over "floating hell' cruise" (CNN) in regard to the disabled Triumph, a 13-deck behemoth with a 3,143-passenger capacity.

Then, of course, the headlines wouldn't stop coming. The stomach-turning story of the Triumph, the original "poop cruise" ship, was followed, throughout February and March, by a string of mishaps involving other Carnival ships with similarly feel-good, newly ironic names: the Elation, the Dream and the Legend. Though not every news-making Carnival mishap involved overflowing toilets, the media couldn't help but link the narratives -- and neither could late-night talk-show hosts.

After "Life of Pi" took home four Oscars, Jay Leno joked, "It's about a young boy trapped at sea on a small boat with a man-eating tiger. Yet with all that, it's still a better way to travel than a Carnival cruise." When the federal government's sequester started kicking in, Conan O'Brien noted that the budget cuts "could negatively affect water and sewage services. In other words, all of America is about to embark on a Carnival cruise." David Letterman, naturally, did a "Top 10 New Carnival Cruise Ships Names" segment. (No 10: Carnival Coli. ... No. 4.: HMS Litigation. ... No. 1: Q.E. Ewwwww.)

And the ship keeps hitting the fan. The Crown Princess (Princess is a Carnival brand) made news earlier this month when its vacuum-toilet system failed, which caused the johns in 410 staterooms to stop flushing. Customers, according to the Houston Chronicle (the ship sailed from Galveston, Texas), reported "foul odors, long lines for public bathrooms and flooded rooms for up to three days." The compensation offered by Carnival, according to the Chronicle: An apology and fifty bucks.

How can Carnival survive such bad PR? For one thing, by discounting. Bloomberg News recently reported that some of the deals Carnival has been offering lately for Caribbean cruises work out to as little as $38 a night -- in the range of the lowest rates that Motel 6 charges in some cities.

And the truth is, Carnival is so sprawling that its well-publicized mishaps may be, from its perspective, unavoidable background noise -- just a part of the cost of doing business. The world's largest cruise-ship operator, Carnival Corp. (which includes Carnival Cruise Lines) reported 2012 income topping $15 billion, and throughout the year it has at least a couple hundred thousand passengers on its cruises at any given time.

It also has 11 different brands, which has come in handy. After all, this year's laughable mishaps (laughable, at least, if you weren't on the cruises in question) pale in comparison to what happened in early 2012, when a cruise ship carrying 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew capsized off the coast of Italy; 32 passengers were killed. You probably remember the name of that ship -- the Costa Concordia -- but not necessarily its owner: Carnival. In that case, the compensation Carnival offered to passengers who waived their right to sue was 11,000 euros (U.S. $14,388 at today's exchange rate).

By the way, Forbes just updated its stats for Carnival Corp. Chairman-CEO Micky Arison; it tracks him because he's a perennial part of the Forbes 400 -- the richest people in America list. As of March, he's at No. 68, with a net worth of $5.7 billion.

This might be a good time to mention that a couple weeks back, Carnival announced that it would not be reimbursing the government for the nearly $780,000 that the U.S. Coast Guard spent on the Triumph rescue -- a price tag Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., called attention to in a March letter to Micky Arison. Carnival's communication team took a month to get back to the senator, issuing a shifty statement saying that it chooses to simply "honor maritime tradition that holds that the duty to render assistance at sea to those in need is a universal obligation of the entire maritime community." In other words, the cost is not Carnival's to bear.

But then last week Carnival finally, begrudgingly agreed to reimburse you, dear taxpayer.

Don't ship your pants.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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