Monday, July 13, 2009

Is bad PR the new advertising?

Advertising Age reported last week on the latest Burger King ad “gaffe” to get attention around the world: a print ad running in Spain which shows the Hindu goddess Lakshmi sitting astride a ham sandwich, with a caption saying “a snack that is sacred.” As writers Ken Wheaton and Emily Bryson York so aptly put it,

"You know, because nothing says "We respect your faith" like portraying a sacred figure of a mostly vegetarian religion sitting on top a quarter pound of charred flesh."

Followers of Burger King, of advertising, and of PR will likely remember other similar “oopsies” from Burger King in the relatively recent past. In April, the chain ran ads in Europe for a new “Texican” burger which featured a character wearing a Mexican flag as a cape (a serious no-no in Mexican culture).

And then there’s the “BK Seven Incher” print ad that suggested fellatio… and, as you might expect, got people talking (if you want to see it, Google it – my Dad reads this blog!).

The chain’s response to the ads that offended Hindus and Mexicans was to apologize, to say that no offense was intended, and to quickly pull the ads – which most would agree is the right thing to do, after your company has done the wrong thing to do.

But with a pattern of offend/apologize/get-lots-of-coverage emerging, industry observers are starting to call foul, suggesting Burger King is purposely running offensive ads for the benefit of the media coverage.

On his “Beyond Madison Avenue” blog, Dan Davis points out that

“Burger King reported a 1.6% increase in sales in May. So, despite the outlandish, offensive nature of the ad/apology campaign BK has run the past few months, its numbers are increasing. An established product, BK isn’t likely to attract copious amounts of new customers through trendiness. It can, however, absorb the consciousness of the consumer base and attract from there.”

So… is this really bad PR for Burger King? Or, by offending minority groups in the locations where it runs the objectionable ads, is the chain betting the majority will still act on a purchase impulse it hopes will come along with the free coverage?

We had a related debate in first-year PR last semester, around Billy Bob Thornton’s spoiled-brat performance on the CBC’s Q Show after host Jian Ghomeshi had the gall to mention that Thornton was a celebrated actor. (I haven’t seen any coverage impolite enough to suggest that had this band not included a movie star, it likely wouldn’t have gotten as much attention in the first place, but it certainly crossed my mind.)

For the first five minutes of the interview, Thornton pretended not to understand any of Ghomeshi’s questions (à la Joaquin Phoenix, who had recently earned headlines with a spaced-out interview on Letterman), and the next five, bickered with the host. The grand finale to this performance was to insult the Canadian audiences he was supposedly in the country to play for, complaining that we’re boring.

Thornton’s stunt outraged Canadian audiences. He and his band, The Boxmasters, were booed at their Massey Hall show in Toronto the following night – and the night after that, they cancelled the balance of their Canadian tour, citing illness in the band.

So… bad PR for Billy Bob Thornton and The Boxmasters? Only if you think the prize Thornton was eyeing was London, Ontario. The incident got wide coverage in the American media on outlets including CNN and Rolling Stone, likely leading many Americans to say “Hey, did you know Billy Bob Thornton has a band?” Thornton’s market is in the U.S., not here; acting out here offered a limited risk with the potential to deliver far greater audiences in the lucrative U.S. market.

So my question is: are Burger King and Billy Bob Thornton both exhibiting a new advertising strategy centered around carefully-calculated bad PR?

Here’s the CBC interview, just so you can take your hat off to Jian Ghomeshi, whose professionalism somehow allowed him to resist telling Billy Bob Thornton in person what the rest of us were yelling at the screen.

Thanks PD for the heads-up!

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