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On September 3rd, Malaysia Airlines launched a marketing campaign entitled My Ultimate Bucket List Contest, which required entrants to submit up to 500 words about what they want to do before they die.

You probably know that the company owned the MH370 plane that disappeared on March 8th 2014, and the MH17 aircraft that was shot down on July 17th 2014. These two aviation disasters are responsible for 537 deaths.

It’s therefore understandable that people considered this campaign in extremely poor taste. And it’s no wonder Malaysia Airlines decided to rename the competition and instead ask entrants to share their “life’s ultimate to-do list”.

All publicity is good publicity

The old adage says that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but is this really true? In Malaysia Airlines’ case, will the benefits of exposure outweigh the consequences of offending?

PR-gone-wrong fallouts differ case-by-case. In 1991, Ratner jewellers’ share value dropped £500 million after then-CEO Gerald Ratner was taped calling the products “total crap”. On the other hand, the Hans Brinker Budget Hostel thrives on being the self-proclaimed world’s worst hotel.

Negative attention can beat being ignored, but controversy is a risky PR tactic. Truly bad publicity does exist, and can cause significant harm. The safer route to success? Generating positive press and a creating a solid online reputation management strategy that protects you should things go wrong.

Some brands learned that the hard way: their risky tactics backfired, or they messed up and their damage-control strategy failed. Take a look at some of the biggest PR disasters below.

Courrier International’s insensitive 9/11 ad

French news magazine Courrier International released a 9/11-related ad just days before the nine-year anniversary of the tragedy, and it understandably caused huge offence. The print advert showed two airplanes flying over shortened versions of the Two Towers, with the tagline ‘Learn to anticipate’. It suggested that people’s inability to predict the disaster was to blame for 2,996 immediate deaths.

Courrier International Learn to anticipate

Editorial Director Philippe Thureau-Dangin told Postmedia News: “If it is too provocative for the American people we will withdraw it. It was not meant to provoke. We don’t want to hurt anybody and especially not the victims of terrorism, of course.”

As part of the ‘Learn to anticipate’ campaign, Courrier also released an ad showing John F Kennedy riding in a Popemobile. The implication being that if he’d read the magazine, he’d have foreseen his shooting and only travelled in bulletproof vehicles.

Abercrombie & Fitch’s Jersey Shore debacle

Abercrombie & Fitch considers itself an exclusive brand, and places huge focus on image. In 2009, the company was found guilty of discriminating against a disabled staff member, who had a prosthetic arm that they wanted to keep out of shoppers’ view.

But that’s not the only instance where the American fashion brand has fallen flat with its image standards. A&F offered Jersey Shore star Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino cash to stop wearing their clothes, saying: “This association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans.”

The timing — the middle of the back-to-school shopping season, and the fact that A&F sold T-shirts featuring Jersey Shore slogans, caused many to cry publicity stunt. If that’s the case, A&F certainly succeeded in getting exposure, but it also saw shares drop 9%. Oops.

And was it wise to banish their clothing from the hit MTV show? The premieres of the following two seasons reached 7.6 million and 4.69 million viewers respectively; that’s a lot of valuable, free exposure the brand waved bye-bye.

American Apparel’s Hurricane Sandy sale

US fashion brand American Apparel met fierce criticism after launching a ‘Hurricane Sandy sale’. It offered a 20% discount to online shoppers in north-eastern regions, “In case you’re bored during the storm”. This email marketing campaign irresponsibly trivialised a disaster that went on to kill 117 people in the affected states.

American Apparel Hurricane Sandy sale

CEO Dov Charney told Bloomberg Businessweek: “I don’t think our marketing guys made a mistake. Part of what you want to do in these events is keep the wheels of commerce going.”

The brand’s decision to distribute free clothing to those most affected by Sandy was overshadowed by its profit-driven response. Positioning the business as a fellow victim of the hurricane was an insensitive move — many Twitter users said they’d boycott the store in protest.

It’s hard to measure the real impact of this PR blunder. Charney put the estimated $1.5million Sandy-related loss down to store closures, rather than the marketing mishap.

KDND Wee for a Wii

This incident proved that an ill-thought-out promotional campaign can have truly terrible consequences. In 2007, the KDND radio station held a competition called ‘Hold Your Wee for a Wii’, where the contestant who could drink the most water without urinating would win a Nintendo Wii console.

Jennifer Strange died of water intoxication as a direct result of participating. Two years later, KDND owner Entercom Sacramento was required to pay her family $16,577,118 in damages.

In a nutshell

Controversial tactics and blunders can generate brand exposure, but at what cost? The idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity is a myth. Unless you’re willing to wager your business on coming up trumps, avoid controversy and prepare for potential PR problems.

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