How low will brands – and consumers – go?

MaryLou Costa is a key member of the Marketing Week features team and her blog brings her unique Australian perspective to brands. She also oversees the Market Research Focus weekly bulletin.

In their pursuit of new audiences and sales, it ceases to amaze me how low brands will stoop to test the waters to see how far they can go before inciting consumer outrage followed by an ASA investigation.

Last month, Weetabix made headlines for a youth ambassador marketing scheme that meant the brand would “sponsor” a group of 15 children, including seven year old twin boys, to wear Weetabix branded shirts “on their busiest days”.

Weetabix may have thought this was a stroke of branding genius, but it comes in the wake of Mother’s Union head Reg Bailey calling for a ban on peer to peer marketing in his May report, backed by the Prime Minister.

Weetabix's young brand ambassadors
Weetabix’s young brand ambassadors

And it completely makes a mockery of the efforts that brands such as Coca Cola, Nintendo and Procter and Gamble have made in signing a voluntary child peer to peer ad ban pledge just last week.

The pledge reads: “Young people under the age of 16 should not be employed and directly or indirectly paid or paid-in-kind to actively promote brands, products, goods, services, causes or ideas to their peers, associates or friends.”

There is so much controversy around the relationship between brands and children, and Weetabix’s activity has not done the industry any favours, despite this week saying it would not repeat the activity. And should it wish to turn an about face and join the pledge, I think many would find such a move hypocritical to say the least.

Meanwhile, brands such as Mountain Dew, Cadbury and Lynx were among the shameless list who for some reason thought sponsoring a blogger’s campaign to queue for the new iPhone 4S for weeks without spending any money would positively enhance their brand awareness.

On first glance it looks like a fun activity for brands to get involved in but reading more about the individual behind it, I wouldn’t so much say they are a blogger but more of a blagger.

Granted, they have achieved a few column inches but also so many surplus goods that the blogger/blagger is now going on a free holiday to Dubai. The brands that haven’t thought twice about supporting the project have done so because it’s a given that they will be featured with a positive write up on the blog.

Not only does it go against the true principles of blogging but it also twists the idea of earned media that most credible bloggers have been working to build up, ie, writing product reviews in an uninfluenced way, or, if you are paid by a brand to endorse something, doing so in a way that is a valid piece of content (that is disclosed of course) – rather than just giving a positive shout out to any brand that gives you a freebie.

Despite my criticisms, what has enabled this is consumers’ willingness to be involved. The parents of the Weetabix kids have ultimately consented to it. The iPhone blogger has put himself up for gratuitous brand endorsements.

It is hard to decide who to be more frustrated with, but there is something that tilts my criticism more towards brands – who should know better, frankly.