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TODD SMITH'S SPIN CYCLE: The 14 biggest #PRFails of 2014

Todd Smith

Todd Smith

As we launch a new year – and new beginnings in brand building in an evolving era of digital communications, The Spin Cycle is in a reflective mood, contemplating on the PR, marketing, advertising and branding initiatives in 2014. There were plenty of banner positive brand moments in the past year, but there were also some epic PR fails.

PR fails are those instances when a brand or personality just loses its for a moment. Unlike the year’s real “losers” (cough…Uber…sniff…American Apparel…hack…Lululemon), these juggernauts of jocularity can provide us with a bit of holiday comedy, after which we can all stand and applaud the fact that we were not in any way involved.

Without further ado, and with help from our friends at Media Bistro, here are the worst 14 #PRFails of 2014.

14. Paramount Pictures. Motion picture companies typically nail the marketing for summer blockbusters like Michael Bay’s catastrophic revision of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Regretfully, I was one of the bums who showed up to the theaters with son in tow, but it’s a good thing that special event with my boy wasn’t in Australia. The movie premiered in the land down under on Sept. 11, and the campaign unfortunately reminded quite a few of something that no one can (or should) ever forget. Unintentional marketing screw-up? Sure. But it was also the very definition of tactlessness and lack of self-awareness.

13. Zara’s Holocaust Fashion. Haute couture is a fancy way of saying “things no average person would wear but can make headlines during fashion week in NYC.” Fashion retailer Zara thought it could combine high and lowbrow with this catchy “just escaped from prison” get up, but those with some basic knowledge of history noticed how closely the garment resembled those worn by prisoners in World War II, right down to the not-quite-Star of David over the left breast.

12. Esurance’s Choice in Fonts. Many studies (like this great one from Complex) conclude that you are what you type. And fonts can say a lot: Comic Sans is fit for bulletin boards, not email signatures or notes to the boss. Many brands go with something firm, bold, and a little artsy to reinforce the fact that they’re “market-leading” and “horizon-scanning.” Esurance chose a modern, sans-serif font, but it seems they didn’t really look closely at the resulting sign. Twitter did, however – and many innuendo-filled headlines ensued.

11. Apple & U2. For all the humanitarian efforts Bono does and charity concerts his band has performed you’d think the public had saved the world’s biggest mulligan with their names on it. But, as the  iPhone 6 launch proved, rock stars get no reprieves. Free albums automatically downloaded to your phone don’t seem like a burden – but we also thought Apple would do better than Microsoft and its Office auto-uploads. More than 500 million users had the album whether they wanted it or not, and more than $100 million was invested in this convoluted “campaign.” Unfortunately for all parties, forcing your way into consumers’ lives is never a good idea.

10. Puma’s #FastForever. If you follow “the real football” – as our friends across the pond call it – then you know this screw-up by heart. Although Puma is a brand many of us equate with a better time in the ’80s or ’90s, many in the soccer community snickered their way through the latest chapter of “when hashtags attack.” What was supposed to be a way for fans to earn signed pictures of Puma-wearing athletes became a dystopian experience of what happens when you give bad people technology and allow them to personalize things.

9. DiGiorno’s #WhyIStayed. More hashtagging gone awry happened when a brand that is usually genius at the newsjacking thing detoured and ran right into a topical wall. #WhyIStayed was a social media conversation featuring testimony from domestic violence victims who chose to remain in damaging relationships in the wake of the Ray/Janay Rice story. DiGiorno looked at the “trending” list and tweeted before it clicked on the hashtag in question; outrage ensued. To the brand’s credit, some pizza guy followed with a series of personal apologies. Lesson learned; don’t tweet before you think (or click).

8. Urban Outfitters’ Kent State Homage. Selling outrageously offensive/not-quite-clever merchandise is this brand’s bailiwick. But, ICYMI: In 1970, the National Guard sent troops to Kent State in response to student protests; the soldiers fired 67 bullets in 13 seconds, killing four students and injuring nine others. It’s possible that the person who approved this shirt was unaware of that tragic historical reference,

7. Malaysian Airlines’ “Bucket List.” 2014 was nothing but tragic for this beleaguered airline, with two crashes (one still not confirmed via CNN) and hundreds of lives lost. In an effort to save itself, the company decided to rebrand and subsequently fire more than 6,000 people. It needed something to win attention – a stunt, a contest. Someone thought that reminding fliers of their own mortality (and a critically panned Jack Nicholson vehicle) would be a fine idea. The site and related campaign disappeared, but not before more than enough damage had been done to an already-flailing business.

6. Robin Thicke’s Twitter Q&A. TwitChats can be effective tools to increase awareness of a brand, but controversy and social media rarely make for pleasant bedfellows. Middle-aged crooner Robin Thicke was in the middle of a depressing divorce and widely circulated reports of bad behavior but that didn’t stop him from reaching out to his fans.

5. AOL’s Chairman Blames Employees’ Sick Kid. Tim Armstrong has a difficult job as CEO of a once-relevant company now best known as a cautionary tale. And the guy comes under a little stress from time to time. Early in 2014, Armstrong was one of many to complain about the Affordable Care Act’s flawed attempts to give health insurance to more Americans. In a heated moment recorded for posterity, he “unintentionally” bashed two of his own employees after their “distressed babies” cost the company millions of dollars. He may have seen his decision to cut said employees’ benefits as a necessary cost of doing business, but the optics were terrible from every angle.

4. #MyNYPD. DISCLAIMER: These men and women deserve the respect of the people they protect on a daily basis. That said, New York’s finest kind of asked for this one. It’s no secret that tension between the public and its civil servants is escalating, and earlier this year the NYPD thought it would be a good idea to disprove its unpopularity by asking Twitter for support via the hashtag #MyNYPD. As we now know, many instead used the tag to share the very worst of the NYPD – and the organization took far too long to realize that Twitter’s wide-open nature often ensures that any trace of positive sentiment will be buried at the bottom of a given tag’s search results.

3. NBA Players & Their Bigoted Owners. You couldn’t miss it: owners of teams in a league that overwhelmingly employs black athletes decided to share their (unwanted) thoughts on contemporary race relations. Donald Sterling (formerly of the L.A. Clippers), Bruce Levenson (formerly of the Atlanta Hawks), and Peter Guber (still presently with the Golden State Warriors) each had a different excuse: one blamed his mistress, the other blamed his fans, and the last blamed Siri.

2. Bill Cosby and The Meme That Started It All. No one knew that Dr. Huxtable was going to have such a terrible year. While everyone is rightly focused on his alleged misbehavior, a simple joke compounded by yet another failed “meme me” campaign escalated his downward spiral. The newly media-shy Bill Cosby’s handlers asked for attention at the worst possible time – and boy, did Twitter deliver. Of course, the aforementioned allegations were “memed” immediately to disastrous effect, and we have little doubt that Cosby wondered why his social media managers assured him that it would be a great idea.

1. The NFL Can’t Decide Where It Stands. The AP’s “Top Sports Story of the Year” showed the world what inept management can do for any organization – even one as impenetrable as the National Football League. From Ray Rice knocking his wife out in an elevator to Adrian Peterson getting at his son with a switch, Greg Hardy body slamming his girlfriend onto a bed full of semi-automatic guns and Ray McDonald playing most of the year despite a pending indictment, the NFL seemed unwilling to recognize that the behavior of its employees reflects upon the culture of the organization itself – and offended members of its most important demographic in the process.

It’s true that NFL Commish Roger Goodell still has a job, that no one in the NFL legal department has been fired, and that no one seems to be protesting the games. But that’s not because the league’s reputation hasn’t suffered a critical blow. The league’s poor excuse for a strategy amounts to the worst #PRFail of the year because Goodell counts on fan loyalty to ensure that the organization he runs remains one of the most profitable on Earth. When we asked five experts to weigh in on the league’s attempts to “combat domestic violence” within its ranks, they were decidedly unimpressed.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Golden Mic | Sony 

Amid a swell of controversy, backlash, confusion and threats, Sony Pictures broadly released “The Interview” online and in select theaters nationwide — an unprecedented counterstroke against the hackers who spoiled the Christmas opening of the comedy depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“It has always been Sony’s intention to have a national platform on which to release this film,” Sony Pictures chair and CEO Michael Lynton said in a statement. “We chose the path of digital distribution first so as to reach as many people as possible on opening day, and we continue to seek other partners and platforms to further expand the release.”

“The Interview” became available on a variety of digital platforms afternoon, including Google Play, YouTube Movies, Microsoft’s Xbox Video and a separate Sony website, a day after Sony and independent theaters agreed to release it in over 300 venues on Christmas. The wide digital release is the culmination of a set of deals that have been in the works since the major theater chains dropped the movie that was to have opened on up to 3,000 screens. Good for Sony, for free speech and artistic freedom. For that, Sony takes the Golden Mic.

Each week, The Spin Cycle will bestow a Golden Mic Award to the person, group or company in the court of public opinion that best exemplifies the tenets of solid PR, marketing and advertising – and those who don’t. Stay tuned – and step-up to the mic! And remember … Amplify Your Brand!

» Todd Smith is president and chief communications officer of Deane, Smith & Partners, a full-service branding, PR, marketing and advertising firm with offices in Jackson. The firm — based in Nashville, Tenn. — is also affiliated with Mad Genius. Contact him at todd@deanesmithpartners.com, and follow him @spinsurgeon.

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About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

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