Preventing ads from going on the offensive

Sportswear manufacturer Diadora is embarking on a damage-limitation campaign after using images from the Bradford fire in an ad. It is not alone in making such blunders, says David Benady

As unfortunate mistakes go, Italian sportswear company Diadora topped the league last week. It was forced to pull its pan-European television ad campaign called “The World Needs to Play More” after inadvertently using images from the 1985 Bradford City fire disaster which killed 56 people, as it attempted to show how sport can overcome violence.

The ad – aired in the UK on Eurosport – starts with images from war zones then cuts to scenes from the blazing stadium as a voiceover says: “Better 90 minutes of play than a minute of silence.” Diadora – which is a sponsor of Bradford City Football Club – pulled the ad after angry Bradford City fans complained. It immediately posted an apology on the football club’s website which read: “Due to an error in production of this section, not attributable to Diadora, the images referring to the Bradford City misfortune were inserted, despite the expressed request for images of non-accidental violence, made to the image bank company.”

Anyone can make a mistake, but it is the way companies react to them and what they do afterwards that is vital in avoiding long-term damage to their reputation. Gary Bartle, who runs consultancy Get Real, which handles Diadora’s UK marketing, says that the company has received more e-mails praising its prompt action in taking the ad off air than complaints about the ad.

Bartle denies that Diadora’s marketing structure – with European ads produced centrally without UK representatives having an input – may have been to blame. He admits he has not even seen the ad, though he says: “There are always ways to improve things, but Diadora has been operating in this way for years and it is the first time there has been a problem.”

Drinks giant Diageo says it has mechanisms in place to ensure there is no repeat of an embarrassing episode two years ago with an ad for Smirnoff Ice.

Diageo faced a potential boycott of its products in Taiwan after a throwaway line in a London Underground ad for Smirnoff Ice, which joked: “Warning. This gift will break down on Christmas morning. Replacement parts available from service centre box no. 260 Taiwan. Allow 365 working days for delivery.” Taiwan’s representative in London complained to Diageo, saying the ad harmed the image of Taiwanese products. Diageo apologised profusely and a spokesman said it had been “a stupid idea” that contravened its own marketing code’s section on offensive advertising.

Diageo now ensures that marketers and agencies are given training in its marketing code, and that they attend workshops run by advertising regulators. Each ad agency has a nominated “social impact champion” to look at the wider perceptions of ads.

“We have held our hands up and said we made a mistake. We learned that marketers were focusing campaigns on GB audiences, but we have to be fully aware of what people outside the target market might think about our campaigns. If they are offended, we have to look again at our strategy,” says a spokesman.

Some of the world’s biggest brand owners are not immune to gremlins in the works. But it defies belief how some of the blunders make it through their rigorous testing mechanisms.

There are products that barely get off the ground after becoming bogged down in errors. Britvic Soft Drinks suffered from a series of errors with the launch of Freekee Soda. Even before its launch, the company had to change its name from Freekin Soda when watchdogs said Freekin was a colloquial term for sex and that the ads would be unsuitable for children’s television. The product launched as Freekee Soda, but had to change its name to Tango Strange Soda following a legal challenge from a European confectionery manufacturer. It was axed shortly afterwards because of low sales.

Brewer Coors was recently forced to promise it would not repeat medicinal claims for the health benefits of drinking beer that it made in a trade press advertorial.

The brewer claimed scientists had discovered that it is kebabs and late-night curries that are to blame for beer bellies rather than drinking beer. It listed numerous health benefits of beer, such as protecting against heart disease, lowering blood pressure due to its low ratio of salt to potassium and providing up to 20 per cent of the daily intake of some vitamins.

But following complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the brewer was informed that it was not allowed to make medicinal claims in advertising, whether they are true or not. But Coors says it thought that because the claims appeared in an advertorial – paid for magazine copy that emulates editorial coverage – it was not obliged to abide by rules governing advertising. That a huge global company can make an error such as this is hard to believe, but shows that even the most professional marketers are not immune to making basic mistakes.

Management consultants accept that committing errors is all too human, but believe that an organisation’s structures can contribute to an atmosphere where staff are discouraged from making criticisms.

Dr Rob Yeung, a psychologist at business consultancy Talentspace, believes some organisations are gripped by “groupthink”, where a group mentality takes over and people become blinded to possible errors. “In group meetings, it is important to put checks in place. It also helps to have a strong chair who will encourage people to think of possible downsides of things,” he says.

However, in many cases the problems arise from failures by outside companies to follow their brief. Diadora blamed the errant Bradford City fire footage on the image bank it employed. Underwear brand Sloggi was criticised by the ASA for placing its ads of women wearing the underwear near mosques. But Sloggi said it had specifically asked its poster company to ensure that the posters were not placed close to mosques.

It is hard for brand owners to avoid making mistakes, especially in a world of outsourced marketing. Even so, the likelihood can be minimised. But companies usually wait until a serious blunder has been committed before looking at ways to ensure it never happens again.l

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