Repeat of Pizza Hut boycott can be avoided by playing mastery, say UK agencies

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

The Pizza Hut boycott can be avoided with clever planning

The infamous Pizza Hut advertising faux pas which generated mortification in customers after mocking a prison fast to advertise its brand earlier this month, has stirred a debate among creative agencies about what the boundaries are of ‘disruptive advertising’.

A shock tactic campaign is topical, it's clever and it gets people talking. But what separates a clever campaign from an outrageous one? In a generation where social media has proven the difference between humorous and offensive is often blurred, it can be difficult to locate the line. The Drum Network members explain why it happened and how this can be avoided.

“Brands feel they need to be reactive to everything on social media. Normally it's just jumping on innocuous trends with bad jokes in a sort of 'dad trying to be funny' way,” says Ian McKee​, Agency UK. Dad-type humour is on trend and can provide brands with a cheesy technique into gaining interest – albeit this may be an appreciative roll of the eyes rather than a chuckle. Yet, Pizza Hut went further, entering a topic that Agency UK states is “clearly completely beyond reproach.” Distinction's Henry France mirrors this, stating: “It really is the most cringeworthy reactive advertising – everyone trying to create their own 'Oreo' moment. Initially, jumping onto a trending topic might seem like a great idea, but rushing in is just bonkers, you will lose sight and the integrity of the brand will be compromised!"

Being reactive is not about being spontaneous, explains Joana Ferreira, Fast Web Media: “The reason so many get it wrong is they simply haven't invested enough time and effort to make sure the social media team is adequately prepared to respond to news stories in real-time without compromising brand values. Oreo's perfectly timed and on-brand post didn't happen by chance or luck, the social media team had enough training and understanding of the brand to know when to jump on the bandwagon, and when to stay quiet – something a lot of these other brands haven't quite reached yet. Brand guidelines, workshops, training, etc all need to be incorporated into the team dynamic.”

“We have a great deal of time for disruptive marketing,” BuiltVisible's Amy Wilson comments. “For it to work, though, there needs to be truth and integrity at its core. That doesn’t exclude humour – I tip my hat to brands like innocent and Moosejaw who continually get it right. Our work as marketers is all about telling compelling stories that lift people up rather than dragging them down. I think the agency in question was trying too hard to appear disruptive and lost sight of why we do this work in the first place.”

Colin Jacobs from Immediate Future states there are clear limits to the system: "The minute a shocking campaign intrudes on law, religion, race, gender, sexuality, beliefs, or, presents a harassing, abusive or degrading tone, then you've simply gone too far. And, if you don't know this, then marketing is not for you!”

However, Free A Girl's campaign which was released by the charity earlier this month, is proof that when thought and planning is put into a disruptive campaign, it can shock in a brilliantly violent way. Impero's Lara Groves elaborates on this, stating: “Free A Girl’s advert highlights that shock tactics involving controversial subjects certainly do make successful content, providing they're used to amplify shared values between brand and audience. Controversial shock tactics to raise awareness of exploitation in a way that both the audience and the brand are appalled by deserve a Cannes Lions Awards. However, controversial shock tactics that invite the audience to become complicit in a brand’s bizarre move to exploit others should be thrown to the lions, and rightfully so.”

The agencies agree that certain topics, including gender, sexuality, race, religion and beliefs, can be effectively manipulated to raise awareness of these issues in a compelling manner. However, when a brand is planning a campaign to advertise itself or raise its own profile, it’s best to steer clear of these subjects altogether.

After Digital's Cat Leaver draws attention to the fact that although digital campaigns can be edited, they should be treated as carefully as print ads: “You can guarantee that would never have made it into a print ad, but because of the immediacy and perceived 'frivolity' of the medium, it's managed to make it onto a major global brand's communications.” All aspects of marketing, including social media, emails and customer service, need to be handled with the same consideration as an advert, in order for a brand’s agenda to be effective.

Oliver Bingham from The Clearing concludes that the most absorbing brands are those that are daring enough to live on the edge of their sector, but there's a fine line between surprise and shock: "It's important to recognise that the limit is different for every brand, based on the market they operate in and where they're positioned within it. Move too far away from your heartland, communicate about a subject or in a way that doesn't instinctively attach itself to what you stand for and the way you see the world, and you're in trouble. Surprise elicits positive emotional responses. It provokes curiosity, stimulates awareness, takes you somewhere new. It's a powerful tool for communicating a potentially complicated or ambiguous message, like Equinox's Commit To Something campaign."

It is possible to skillfully bend the rules of advertising by manouvering them to topics you know well enough to ridicule, but when a bad tweet can spread through through the nation faster than the speed of 7G internet, it's not worth taking a risk. Plan ahead, be daring and do your research. Play your cards carefully, and you may just be able to make the next Oreo hit.

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