As part of our New Year Honors series, we consider the dishonorable mentions that left a bad taste in our mouth, from Listerine’s unreal influencer to Brewdog’s attempts to attract women and Papa John’s racist rant.
Scottish brewery Brewdog has always been a fan of loudmouthed controversy. It has tried its hand at almost every aggravator in the book, from publicly trolling its big brand rivals over their scores on RateBeer.com to telling consumers ‘Don’t buy the advertising’ via an, um, advertising campaign.
One tactic it hadn’t experimented with until March, however, was satire. And it’s fair to say it could have done with some practice before launching its ‘Beer for Girls’ campaign.
Brewdog packaged a new beer, ‘Pink IPA’, in lurid candyfloss branding to jump off shelves on International Woman’s Day. For the following month, 20% of sales from the brand and its flagship Punk IPA offering were donated to the Women’s Engineering Society, while the brewer offered a 20% discount to women who bought Pink IPA in its bars.
In a statement, the brand emphasized the name ‘Beer for Girls’ was satirical and the whole campaign was actually a “parody on the failed, tone-deaf campaigns that some brands have attempted in order to attract women”. Yet the complexity of the creative idea and execution meant many believe it was in fact a failed tone-deaf campaign attempted in order to attract women.
Five months later drinks watchdog the Portman Group announced the fluorescent ale did accidentally appeal to someone – kids. Just what every alcohol brand wants to hear, right?
There’s no doubt that Elon Musk is an innovator. SpaceX and Tesla push the limits of space exploration and electric cars, respectively. But he’s also a polarizing figure and 2018 just didn’t seem to be his year.
The eccentric entrepreneur and lover of weird PR stunts released a flamethrower earlier in the year In what should have been a highlight of the year, SpaceX marked its Mars mission experiments by launching a red Tesla Roadster convertible into Earth’s orbit. At the wheel was a dummy christened Starman. The dashboard had the message ‘Don’t Panic’ written upon it while David Bowie music blared from the speakers.
However, he made plenty of moves that did not endear him to the masses. In a bizarre earnings call in May he called journalists’ questions “boring” and ripped on them for not writing enough positive stories about autonomous vehicles – this after a Tesla vehicle on autopilot crashed and killed its driver in California. He continued his attacks on the press after some negative coverage, stating that he would launch his own website for ranking the integrity of journalists and news sites.
Then came the negative press over his attempt to assist in the cave rescue of the trapped Thai soccer team. In a show of goodwill, Musk sent engineers from his companies to aid in the rescue. One diver, however, saw it as a PR stunt and publicly chided Musk. But Musk struck back and even implied the diver was a pedophile (to which he later apologized).
Musk also talked about privatizing Tesla following discussions with Saudi investors, announcing his intentions on Twitter. He later recanted and went into damage control after funding didn’t materialize. A subsequent SEC investigation that removed him from his post as chairman, along with many setbacks on Tesla’s Model 3 and other stressors caused him to tell the New York Times: “This past year has been the most difficult and painful year of my career. It was excruciating.”
“A ridiculous lie factory”, “narcissistic” and “who keeps Listerine on their bedside table? Serial killers, that’s who?” – just a few of the comments directed at blogger Scarlett Dixon (aka @ScarlettLondon) after she posted a #spon Instagram post to promote mouthwash in September.
The bubble-gum-hued picture showed the influencer sitting on a bed flanked by heart-shaped balloons and draped in a blanket with a picture of herself on it. Plates of strawberries and (rather curiously) tortilla wraps posing as ‘pancakes’ also featured. If you looked really closely there was a bottle of Listerine perched on her bedside table, designed to prop up the brand’s ‘Bring Out the Bold’ campaign.
After being picked up on Twitter by a man lamenting the staged photoshoot (“is this fuck anybody’s normal morning”) the post ended up going viral for all the wrong reasons and Dixon’s innocuous Instagram update became the subject of fierce debate about the unrealistic image presented by creators on social media. The influencer even said she received “death threats” over the sponsored post.
“My feed isn’t a place of reality,” she countered. “Sometimes my photos are whimsical and OTT and a little too pink, but I’m not presenting this as an ‘idealistic’ version of life that young girls should aspire to. Those who follow me will know my reality.”
The real dishonor? Listerine’s complete silence over the whole sorry affair, which left a bad taste in the mouth.
Pret a Manger
High street regular Pret a Manger felt the heat in 2018. Failure by the international sandwich chain to label allergens on goods resulted in the deaths of two unfortunate individuals who fell ill shortly after consuming mis-sold sandwiches.
Although it has pledged to improve its labeling, the incident highlighted the fact that laws need changing around allergen labeling.
It has been nine months since Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie appeared on the front of The Observer with a flash of pink hair, revealing how Cambridge Analytica had harvested the data of some 87 million Facebook users without them knowing.
Facebook is still feeling the reverberations of the blockbuster scandal in which the political consulting firm exploited its system for political gain, with the Trump campaign leaning on the data in the 2016 election to target voters.
In the days after the revelations, Zuckerberg failed to make any kind of statement, breaking his silence with a post on his beloved platform acknowledging that Facebook had “made mistakes”. Since then it’s made even more.
For one, Zuckerberg ditched his gray T-shirt and donned a suit and tie to appear in front of US and European officials – but so far he has refused to give evidence to governments in the UK, Brazil, Singapore and more.
Also in the UK, Facebook was issued a the maximum penalty from data watchdog ICO, but has appealed the £500,000 fine on principle.
What’s more, it had to postpone the launch of a shiny new tool designed to make the political ad buying process more transparent because it was abused by Vice and Business Insider, who bought ads using the name of the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica.
As if that’s not enough, Facebook was then forced to vehemently hit back at a New York Times article that reported how its leadership team struggled to contain manifold scandals over the past two years.
Facebook users’ confidence in the company has plunged by 66% as a result of the crisis, according to a Ponemon Institute study.
It wasn’t a banner year for Papa John’s after the American pizza chain had to remove its founder and namesake, ‘Papa’ John Schnatter, in July after he allegedly used the N-word in a company role-playing exercise designed to give him experience of handling difficult situations.
Schnatter, the former mascot of a pizza empire who had already given up his role as chief executive after he blamed protesting NFL players for declining sales, then launched the ‘Save Papa Johns’ truther campaign online in an attempt to restore his name.
The company distanced itself from its ousted founder by blaming Schnatter for declining sales and launching an aggressive marketing campaign to reset the company’s image. As part of the reset, Papa John’s named Havas Media as integrated media agency of record, retaining only IPG’s Powell Tate. Nowhere will you see the ex-Papa in any of the chain’s marketing material and the pizza maker is centering its apology tour around the company’s inclusion initiatives.
The rebranding has reportedly cost somewhere between $50m and $60m, but that’s set against better than expected third quarter sales which fell 9.8% in America as opposed to a predicted drop of 10.9%.
The 2018 World Cup was supposed to belong to Lionel Messi. The football superstar looked to lead his Argentina squad to victory, but that didn’t happen, And, to add insult to injury, Messi was let down by sponsor Mastercard with a poorly imagined, tone deaf attempt at charity fundraising.
Looking to brand the financial credit provider as a doer of social good clearly missed the mark. The social media campaign offered to provide thousands of meals to children, but seemingly held Messi and Neymar responsible for how much food was given by gamifying the process.
The credit card brand announced that for every goal scored by Messi or Neymar it would provide 10,000 meals to starving children. Considering the few goals scored and their teams’ early exits from the competition, many on social media questioned Mastercard’s motives, wondering why the company didn’t just give the children the meals regardless.
Former England striker Ian Wright even stated on Twitter: “Easily the worst marketing I’ve ever seen. This seriously got through the different levels of management and you all said go ahead.”
In a statement, Mastercard explained: “For each goal scored by Lionel Messi or Neymar from now until March 2020, Mastercard will donate the equivalent of 10,000 meals to the World Food Program to fight childhood hunger and malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
While that point would have been good to know up front, the entire campaign came off as a wasted attempt during one of marketing’s biggest events.
UK agencies’ gender pay gap
Amid the #MeToo movement and a rising tide of revelations about discriminatory conduct across the marketing world, the scale of sexism in advertising was laid bare in 2018 as more than 10,000 businesses across the UK revealed their gender pay gaps.
After the UK government forced businesses with more than 250 staff to publish figures comparing men and women’s average pay, almost 50 UK agencies and holding groups and over 60 media companies fessed up. While both sectors had a better median hourly pay gap than the UK average of 18.4%, the pay gap at some of the country’s most prestigious ad agencies was shocking. WPP holding company WPP 2005 Ltd had a gap of 42.2%, J Walter Thompson 38.8% and DDB UK 38.1%.
National newspaper group Telegraph Media Group was revealed to pay its male staff 35% more than female employees on average, while Conde Nast – whose portfolio of titles includes many magazines and media properties aimed at women – was found to pay female staff 36.9% less than male staff. WPP, whose creative agencies had some of the worst pay gaps in the industry, said the lack of female staff at executive levels accounted for much of the disparity. James Whitehead, chief executive of JWT London, said the figures were “obviously disappointing”.
“Where we’ve given real focus with initiatives over the past 18 months, we’ve seen real change in attracting great young female talent into the agency,” he said. “Now we need to build on what we have started with further actions to make the same degree of change at the more senior levels. We understand it won’t be corrected overnight, but we will be constantly measuring our progress against these activities and will be held accountable by our employees every step of the way.”
As the year rolled on further discrimination was revealed across the industry. ITN, the production company behind the news programs of ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, voluntarily released its BAME pay gap, finding that the pay of employees from BAME backgrounds was typically 20.8% lower than that of their white colleagues. The UK government has suggested that companies could be legally compelled to release figures on ethnic pay gaps, just as they must now for gender pay gaps.
While several companies across the globe unveiled their own initiatives intended to close the pay gap as well as inequality in other areas (Indian media company Times Internet achieved pay equality following a gender pay audit, the Financial Times created an editorial bot to remind reporters to quote more women in their stories and the BBC launched a road map to attain gender equality across its sprawling organization by 2020) the problem has seriously damaged the reputation of the industry.
Shortly before the official gender pay gap figures were released, a YouGov survey found that only 21% of decision makers at the affected companies acknowledged that men were, on average, paid better than women. Later in the year a group of J Walter Thompson employees reportedly threatened to take the company to court, alleging that an inclusivity drive amounted to discrimination against white straight men.
British companies are required to report updated gender pay figures in April this year meaning that, for the first time, we’ll be able to measure in hard numbers whether agencies and media companies have been putting their money where their mouths are.
The Drum's New Year Honors were first published in the January issue of The Drum magazine, which looks back at the year in marketing and advertising and mulls over some of the lessons learned in 2018. Buy your copy here.