Now, unfortunately for Grey and for Doc Morris, not everyone
thought the "Evil Sperm" ads were funny. Quite a few people thought
they were racist, insensitive, offensive and inappropriate -- and
now those adjectives are associated with Doc Morris pharmacies in
That's the way it is with humor -- sometimes you nail it,
sometimes you bomb. Humor is powerful in both directions.
A simple allegory for old-media folks who still don't get it:
Standing up and telling a fart joke while drinking with friends in
your rec room = low risk. Standing up and telling a fart joke while
drinking with friends at someone's wedding party = high risk.
With internet advertising and PR, you are always at
someone's wedding party; you are never safely behind closed doors.
If you try to be loud and draw attention to yourself, as
advertisers and PR folk generally do, the people at the next table
are going to hear it -- and if you're testing the limits of good
taste with your humor, the odds are that those uptight grandmas and
squares and stuffed shirts who just don't appreciate your
super-edgy wit are going to think poorly of you and perhaps even
whack you with their cash-filled Vera Bradley handbags.
Here are some realities of the media world of 2009 that
old-school advertising and PR would be well served to note:
- You can't expect your messaging to stay contained within your
target demographic. The information you put out will spread, and
that spread is beyond your control. There are only two reasons why
information doesn't spread once it is out: a) people are just
uninterested in your message, b) it's in a language people don't
speak (which is really just a subset of "a," frankly). Note: Images
like the "Evil Sperm" ads are language-less, so they will jump the
language barrier with glee.
- You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. There is no
memory hole with the internet. Book-burning is so 20th
century. Babelsplatz was yesterday. If you put it out, it is there
to stay (even if folks like Ads of the World are willing to
- Hiding and praying it will go away rarely works. Like every
good stand-up comic knows, if your routine is bombing, the only
thing you can do is keep talking. It's double or nothing. The only
treatment for unfortunate speech is more speech.
So, what does this mean concretely? How does the modern
PR/advertising flack deal with the fact that we live in a world
where toothpaste gets irretrievably out of the tube and will
probably ooze into places we never wanted to have it? Well ...
- Craft your message with the knowledge that it will likely go
where you didn't intend it to go. One thing this could mean is
don't do messages that, while they may resonate with one of your
customer demographics, are bound to offend others. Grey's "Evil
Sperm" and Pepsi's suicide ads fall into that category.
Alternately, if you can't resist putting out offensive stuff,
because it's just so incredibly funny and will make your targets
buy and your colleagues green with professional envy, then have
your mea culpa marketing strategy ready in advance to take
advantage of the probable result -- a social-media shitstorm -- as
Pepsi did with its suicide ads (more on mea culpa marketing
- Don't humiliate yourself by begging (or worse, demanding)
bloggers to go back and censor your screw-up. As a blogger, I say
deleting posts is cool only in the rarest of circumstances --
generally only when an innocent individual will be hurt or put in
danger by the information -- never when it's just embarrassing to a
company. Trying to get bloggers to censor information is just going
to offend them further, make them question your ethics and increase
the chance that they will react to you with animosity.
- Have your mea culpa machine ready to roll. If you offend with
your communications, keep communicating -- your best hope is to
dilute your screw-up with evidence that you really are upstanding
folks who made a little mistake. If you are really good at this,
you can jujitsu the negative into positive and come out well ahead,
with free positive publicity and goodwill among influencers and
your target markets. How do you do this?
- Listen to those criticizing you and understand how you offended
-- this means tracking all negative mentions and understanding
- Figure out what you are sorry for, what you are not sorry for
and prepare your response accordingly. Be honest. Don't be
arrogant, though -- if you're not sorry enough, or for the stuff
you should be, it's likely the social-media sphere will make you
truly sorry if you screw up your apology as well.
- Connect with your detractors personally and as a real human
being. This means actually reading their posts about you; figuring
out who they are and what their perspective and values are; and
engaging them on their terms, in their language and with a
convincing apology -- and above all, as a living, breathing, fellow
human being, not as a faceless corporation or as a smooth-talking,
snakeskin-suit PR wanker.
- Connect publicly with your detractors' negative coverage of
you. Comment on the relevant articles where appropriate, write your
own articles on the subject if appropriate, guest blog a
response/apology on a detractor's site where appropriate. Be smart
though. Screw this part up, and you may just fan the flames high
again, rather than douse them with the cooling water of an
effective mea culpa.
- Maintain the relationships going forward. Now that you've
invested the energy into converting a detractor into a friend, or
at least a "tolerater," maintain that relationship with
communication -- share information, ask guidance, get feedback.
These former detractors can save you from future screw-ups, or at
least are likely to deal with you a bit more sympathetically the
next time you blow it.
In essence, it's quite simple, just remember these three things:
On the internet, you are always talking to the whole world, whether
you intend to or not; be cognizant of who your message will offend
and decide deliberately if you are willing to offend them; and if
you must offend, have your mea culpa machine ready to go before you
pull the trigger.
This is the media world of 2009 -- it's simple transparency and
good human relations. There's really no excuse for blowing it.
~ ~ ~
Chris Abraham, president of the digital-PR firm Abraham Harrison, is a blogger who specializes in social-media
marketing with a focus on blogger outreach, blogger engagement and
search-reputation management. Chris lives in Berlin and