Dunkin' Donuts learned that the hard way last week. An online ad featuring company spokeswoman Rachael Ray in a scarf faintly resembling head- and neck-wear popular in some Middle Eastern countries outraged the popular right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin, who called it "jihadi chic." Dunkin responded quickly, pulling the ad and issuing a statement that said "absolutely no symbolism was intended" in Ms. Ray's black-and-white, paisley-patterned scarf.
In today's media-on-media world, that was only the beginning of the controversy. Endless comments-section debates dissected the "keffiyeh kerfuffle," as Ms. Malkin dubbed it (see some Ad Age readers' thoughts). TV news wrangled with it too, and New York's Fox affiliate got caught in an embarrassing moment quickly slapped up on Manhattan media blog Gawker. With cameras rolling, one anchor whispered to another that Dunkin' was a sponsor in an attempt to head off a rant on the brouhaha. It worked, with the offending anchor quickly ending his tirade against Ms. Ray and instead deciding to praise Dunkin's coffee.
It was the news media that ended up looking the worst, as it chased its tail on a story that had about as much substance as a chocolate munchkin. Damage to the two chief brands involved, Dunkin' and Ray, is likely minimal -- crisis-communications experts handled what could have been a problem for both.
According to one executive close to the Rachael Ray brand, the fallout has been "absurd. No one did anything wrong here. They're acting like she burned a flag on a shoot." The executive also said no advertisers have contacted the producers of Ms. Ray's show or her eponymous magazine to pull spending.
'Silly instance of overreaction'
Dunkin' gained free publicity as it sidestepped a major quagmire and avoided having its patriotism questioned. "It's not going to affect how their coffee tastes or how many doughnuts they sell," said Darren Tristano, exec VP of food-industry research firm Technomic.
"This is a silly instance of overreaction based on a misunderstanding for Dunkin' Donuts," said Seth Faison of Sitrick & Co., a crisis-communications firm. "There was no upside to keeping the ad on, and there's no real downside from pulling it. Same for Rachael Ray. I think everyone's going to move on very shortly."
Even Ms. Malkin relented. In a syndicated column that followed up on the matter, she praised Dunkin' for dumping the ad: "It's refreshing to see an American company show sensitivity to the concerns of Americans opposed to Islamic jihad and its apologists. Too many of them bend over backward in the direction of anti-American political correctness."
Of course, not everyone was happy. Liberal-tilting MSNBC anchor Keith Olberman called for a boycott of Dunkin,' and one of the more than 60 comments on AdAge.com promised to make the donut purveyor pay for backing down.
Wrote an unnamed resident of Burbank, Calif.: "I can assure anyone at DD that I will never, ever give them my business again, not when they succumb to strong-arm tactics from right-wing nut jobs like Malkin. This is corporate cowardice of the most extreme and most inexcusable."
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Contributing: Andrew Hampp, Rupal Parekh