13 March 2009

Red Bull advertising gets a harder edge

A new TV ad for Red Bull screening in Australia appears to be explicitly linking the guarana and caffeine-laced beverage to a claim of enhanced male sexual performance.

Red Bull’s long-running ad campaign featuring hand-drawn cartoons has consistently communicated the product promise that Red Bull “gives you wiiings”. Often this idea has been depicted literally, as the cartoon protagonists sprout wings allowing them to fly out of trouble or perform at higher levels.

Leading marketing academic Professor Kevin Lane Keller, in a comprehensive case study of the brand, writes that Red Bull’s ads were very effective “because they clearly communicated product benefits without promising specific physiological results”. However, although it looks similar, Red Bull’s new ad – which I saw for the first time this week – goes way beyond this well-established advertising formula.

The setting is a nude beach. A young woman is lying, presumably naked, reading a newspaper. A man arrives and asks her if it’s OK if he sets up next to her (his genitals are obscured by a horizontal black rectangle). They have a brief conversation and she offers him a can of Red Bull. He has a drink and immediately develops an erection, depicted by a change in angle of the black rectangle. While he appears to be embarrassed, she clearly approves. The ad is tagged in the usual manner: “Red Bull gives you wiiings”.

Why will this ad cause problems for Red Bull?

It’s not that the subject matter of the ad could cause offence – it’s a cartoon, after all, and the erection is implied (although there’s nothing equivocal about it). It’s not even that the tone is creepy and sleazy – erections on a nude beach are a bit Benny Hill-ish at the best of times.

The real problem here is that this ad makes no bones about what physiological benefit is being promised. It cannot be interpreted other than as a literal claim that Red Bull causes or enhances erection.

While medical opinion would suggest the opposite if anything (excessive caffeine intake is sometimes listed as contributing to erectile dysfunction), the internet is full of anecdotes, opinions and myths linking Red Bull to sexual performance. There are even YouTube testimonials to its power (WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT AND LANGUAGE. DEFINITELY NOT SAFE FOR WORK, KIDS, etc.).

Is Red Bull seeking to exploit internet rumours and gossip? That would be dicey strategy for any well-established brand.

But there are more serious legal issues here. What looks like an unequivocal and explicit claim for beneficial effects on male sexual function – or any physiological effect for that matter – would normally need to be validated by evidence, or Red Bull could be found to have breached regulations around the promotion of therapeutic goods.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration defines as a "therapeutic good" any product which is represented in any way to be, or is likely to be taken to be, for use... in connection with preventing, diagnosing, curing or alleviating a disease, ailment, defect or injury... (or) influencing inhibiting or modifying a physiological process".

In other words, would the Red Bull ad stand up in court?

10 March 2009

Why some brands should NOT be on Twitter

In the few short weeks I’ve been on Twitter (@downesy), I’ve already seen and followed dozens of posted links to articles about brands and Twitter. These have ranged from short and relatively obscure blog posts to serious articles by respected commentators in the advertising and marketing trade press. Many of them are interesting and have valid and useful points to make and share about brands on Twitter. But I’ve found it increasingly disturbing that these articles often share an underlying premise that goes unspoken and therefore unchallenged.

That premise is that brands should – indeed some go far as to say MUST – have a presence on Twitter.

OK, Twitter is new and buzzing. Yes, Twitter users are enthusiastic, zealous even, and great evangelists for this exciting new communications medium. Indeed, it seems like a very significant proportion of the traffic on Twitter is about Twitter. But being new, fast, powerful and exciting – like a Lamborghini perhaps – doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Nor, indeed, does it make it right for every brand. The first – strategic – question any brand manager, agency strategy planner or “digital brand strategist” should be asking is not “Quick, how can we get our brand on Twitter?” but rather “How could being on Twitter help our brand?”

If you can’t answer the second question immediately, then there’s probably little point, cyber-squatting arguments apart (i.e. secure the brand’s @ identity before someone else “fakes” it), rushing around and appointing someone as the brand’s Twitter monitor and plunging headlong into the (ahem) Twitterverse.

And don’t be surprised or ashamed if you can’t answer the second question definitively even after lengthy, open-minded strategic consideration. It’s not a question that many brands can answer yet, if they are honest about it.

“What the hell, shouldn’t we just go for it anyway?” I hear you asking. Not necessarily – it may be that your brand should NOT be on Twitter, at least not yet and maybe not ever, for one or more of the following reasons.

  1. Twitter users are not a target audience for your brand. A disciplined approach to customer segmentation dictates that you target some segments and choose not to serve others. Currently, the few million users of Twitter around the world represent a pretty distinctive segment when viewed along demographic, behavioural and psychographic lines. They are an attractive audience for some brands, but not for others. Should a brand therefore bother with Twitter if it is targeting people with a very low prevalence of Twitter use? Well, not if it diverts strategic resources (people, money and management focus) away from other priorities or if it has the potential to undermine more core communication messages and initiatives.
  2. Twitter isn’t right for your brand’s personality. Popular individuals on Twitter have distinctive personalities and tones of voice. In the case of celebrities or people we know offline, these typically align with their real-life personae, or at least reflect parts of their personalities that we recognize (it’s amazing what the discipline of 140 characters can unleash in some people).
    But we all know people who would simply be boring on Twitter – love ’em to death, but it’s just not their style. Likewise, there are brands – even brands we love – that would also be boring or inappropriate on Twitter.
    Brand personality and values have to be built from within. Merely being on Twitter doesn’t automatically confer on a brand attributes like “cool” and “digitally savvy” if, indeed, that’s what you want for the brand. To assume otherwise would be to set the brand up for (dare I say) “epic fail”.
  3. Your brand doesn’t speak “tweet”. Many brands have succeeded in communicating distinctive positioning and personality through long-running campaigns using (for example) long-copy print ads, or emotion-laden cinematic TV commercials, or quirky viral and outdoor media. That doesn’t mean the brand is stuck with these media, these tactics and this tone of voice forever, but you must ask whether the limitations of Twitter allow your brand to use a voice that’s congruent with positioning and other aspects of the marcoms mix. Or is 140 characters and the witty, sometimes arch, off-the-cuff Twitter style just not where your brand is coming from?
  4. People like your brand but don’t want to follow it on Twitter. I have lots of friends who aren’t on Facebook or Twitter. Just because I now use Facebook and Twitter a lot doesn’t mean those people are no longer my friends – we have other ways of keeping in touch and relating.
    The same goes for brands. Some of my favorite brands just don’t feel like they belong on Twitter or are not yet ready for Twitter.
  5. Your brand becomes a freaking nuisance on Twitter. If your brand has little or nothing of relevance to say but keeps tweeting away regardless, even the most loyal consumers will begin to ignore it and may ultimately resent it and choose to stop following it. Haven’t we all “unfriended” someone because they kept bombarding us with stupid zombie requests?
    Enraptured with Twitter and all its power and possibility, long-time ad people are sometimes forgetting concepts like wear-out. There are plenty of cases where excessive exposure to otherwise likeable ads has turned consumers off a brand and there’s nothing magical about Twitter that will prevent that from happening.
  6. People who aren’t into your brand offline just aren't that into you. Being on Twitter may get your brand extra attention and extra opportunities to impress but it’s unlikely to make people love your brand if they don’t like it in the real world.
  7. Even if people do like following your brand on Twitter, it doesn't change anything. Twitter should be a consideration in overall brand strategy, not drive brand strategy. What strategic objectives are you trying to achieve using Twitter? Could they be better met through other tactics and other media? And don’t ignore the potential downside risks of being on Twitter, especially if you don’t have the rest of the marketing mix right.
  8. The rest of the brand’s service delivery and marketing infrastructure can’t support promises made or implied by a Twitter presence. I’ve had one great service experience via Twitter (from Google, after I tweeted a complaint about Google Toolbar out into the ether and got a reply from the Google Toolbar Grand Poobah himself in California). But the same didn’t happen when I tweeted about Telstra BigPond. In fact, nothing happened. And that’s fine, but I would be very annoyed to see a stream of semi-promotional crap from Telstra on Twitter when I can’t get them on the phone inside 30 minutes to talk about real problems with my service and my bill.
    I can also envisage situations where Twitter might serve to exacerbate poor service experiences and then broadcast them to the world. A personal text message from an airline telling you that your flight is cancelled and suggesting you get to the airport for an earlier one can be an extremely valuable addition to the service experience. But the same doesn’t necessarily go for Twitter. If you’ve ever been at Sydney Airport (as I have) on a day when Qantas domestic has a total meltdown due to weather, then a Twitter stream of delays and confusion could be an absolute PR disaster. On the other hand, knowing that there are problems but finding no mention of it on a Qantas Twitter profile would also undermine confidence and trust.

People with a vested interest in one particular medium – and that goes for TV, radio, newspapers, etc. and not just “digital” – have always sought, and will continue to seek, to highlight ways in which your brand could use their medium ahead of any others. But based on what I’ve seen so far, some people who glory in titles like “digital brand strategist” need to extract the digit and focus first on the brand.

04 March 2009

Trujillo and racism: My reply to Harry Mavros in full

Harry Mavros wrote in reply to my two recent articles in Crikey, in which I was described aspects of the media treatment of Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo as employing racist stereotypes.

The following is the full text of my reply to Mavros.

I commend Harry Mavros for approaching the issue with some structure and intellectual rigour, and for playing the ball not the man. However, I’m sure we both deplore and reject racism not because of its underlying motivations but because of its awful consequences. While I acknowledge the distinction Mavros draws between “vulgar parochialism” and racism, I am far less concerned about issues of definition (those to which I referred as “technicalities”) than I am about the effects.

Racism and vulgar parochialism are fellow travelers – Mavros acknowledges that both produce the same kinds of derision of culture and appearance – and most Australians can’t tell an epiphenomenon from an epiglottis. The argument isn’t about whether cartoonists and sub-editors are motivated by racism (I don’t believe they are) but whether their actions could promote racism.

We appear to be in furious agreement that Knight's Trujillo cartoon is discriminatory and vulgar. But, as I made clear in both of my recent pieces (and my 2006 Crikey article), last Friday’s cartoon was just the latest episode in a long and troubling history. Sections of the Australian media have treated Mr Trujillo in this discriminatory and vulgar manner from the time of his appointment right through to the announcement of his departure.

This and other cartoons, “cute” headlines like “Si senor”, nicknames like the “Three Amigos”, and radio stations playing the Mexican Hat Dance whenever his name is mentioned may look benign when considered individually. But for a very significant proportion of the Australian population, each of these repeated pairings – of Trujillo with a false, vulgar and discriminatory (Mavros's words) national and cultural stereotype – leverages existing prejudices and has the potential to engender fixed and absolute beliefs about racial inferiority.

By humorously referring to Victorians as “Mexicans” (i.e. from “south of the border”), Sydneysiders have long tapped into the “Mexican” racial stereotype in order to imply, albeit gently, that Victorians are intellectually inferior, slow and lazy.

I have interviewed many Australian consumers who, based on the cartoon and movie stereotypes on which they have been raised, and bolstered by the information they get from trusted contemporary media sources, believe that: (i) Sol Trujillo is “a Mexican”; (ii) “Mexicans” are intrinsically (culturally, genetically, whatever) inferior to other “races” in intellect, competence and trustworthiness; and (iii) as a “Mexican”, Sol Trujillo was a poor choice as Telstra CEO and an incompetent manager.

These people often have no basis for assessing Trujillo’s performance objectively. They see and hear others making fun of him because he’s “a Mexican” and, linking this to other (perhaps more reasoned) criticism in the media, make racially-based attributions about the reasons for his incompetence.Average German citizens and soldiers probably didn’t consider Jews genetically inferior until encouraged to believe this by Nazi propagandists. Indeed, they had to reject evidence to the contrary, namely that Jews in Germany included academics, musicians, scientists and business leaders.

But the Nazis didn’t need genotyping to convince other Germans that Jews were racially inferior. They simply heaped scorn on their appearance and cultural and religious practices. These were the tangible artefacts that “proved” their genetic inferiority: “They look funny and dress funny, they act strange, hence they are inferior.”

I am disturbed to have been accused by Mavros of recklessness for having raised the issue of racism. To deny racism on the basis of a purist argument about definitions and motivations is to be recklessly indifferent to the potential consequences of racial stereotypes and derision in the media.