Wenlock, the mascot for the Olympic Games, was unveiled alongside Mandeville, the Paralympic mascot. With the usual Locog flair for impending disaster, the superficial elements were all stage-managed perfectly: a London schoolyard filled with happy, multicultural children playing harmoniously together against the backdrop of a graffiti rainbow. Suddenly, horrifically, they were joined by a man dressed as a large, white phallus who proceeded to frolic with the children in a quite alarming manner.
It was an indelible image. As a voiceover explained that the figure with the helmet-like head, single eye and dual appendages around his base was Wenlock, I was struck with a single, horrifying realisation: yes, but he looks like a penis.
Locog had been bitten once before by negative press and public reaction, and this time it came armed for a PR fight. The design team from Iris had been briefed so forcefully on how to defend its creation you could see the key messages from half a mile away. The design had cost “just a few thousand pounds” but had taken two whole years to perfect. There was a brand heritage story in which Wenlock’s name came from the Shropshire town that inspired the modern Olympic movement, and his body from the last drop of steel used to manufacture the new Olympic Stadium. And then the killer proof point: the design had been guided by public reaction with “over 40 focus groups” commissioned as part of the process.
A note to Locog and Iris: anyone who commissions 40 focus groups does not know what they are doing. Focus groups are a qualitative method – they offer insights not representation. After four or five groups, you take the insights into quantitative research. Doing so many focus groups suggests that you are either lacking in expertise or over-compensating. I suspect it’s the latter, because I can’t believe that in so many groups, none of the 300 or so participants pointed out the obvious: “Yes, but it looks like a penis”.
At the London launch, Locog chairman Lord Coe was on hand to add his seal of approval to the design. “The mascot will help us engage with children, which is what I believe passionately in,” said Coe, as the large white phallus behind him disconcertingly hugged a growing throng of youngsters. It’s crucial to get the big boss behind a design from the start – something Locog found to its cost in 2007 when it launched the London Olympic logo. Lord Coe certainly provided the support this time, but I’m sure I glimpsed just the tiniest hint of reticence around the eyes during the launch last week. Could it be that beneath all the platitudes and on-message pronouncements, somewhere in his sub-conscious Coe was thinking: yes, but it does look like a penis.
After the launch, a poll by EMR revealed that 49% of marketing professionals approved of Wenlock. Indeed, 30% of the sample actually preferred the new mascot to the Olympic logo. Proof positive, if any were needed, that around half of the British marketing population are total morons. And a galling statistic for you, dear reader, because that means there is only a 50-50 chance that you yourself are not an idiot. The only way to safely confirm your worth is to gaze at the grotesque image on the right and ask yourself whether it makes any sense. If you are still unsure, do what real marketers do and check out the public reaction.
There are now more than 17,000 webpages in which Wenlock is compared to a giant penis. Twitter provided an excellent window on the public mood. Sample tweet: “Because nothing says ‘Britain’ like a creepy bipedal showerhead/penis thing with lobster claws”.
Clearly there is very little upside to even the most attractive mascot designs. They are largely ignored during the event and quickly forgotten after it. One would have imagined, pre-Wenlock, that there is also very little downside to mascots too. But as the headlines around the world last week demonstrate, Locog has again achieved the impossible. In New Zealand: “Spare us this Mascot Indignity”. In America: “London unveils creepy-looking mascots”. In Canada: “Walking alien penis creatures marketed towards children”.
Alas, there is a serious side to all this. The 2012 Olympics are meant to promote all things British to the rest of the world. And yet first the Olympic logo and now Wenlock have undermined one of the most treasured perceptions of the UK – that we are leaders in design and branding. In that respect, Locog has managed to make all of us look like dicks.
Mark Ritson is an Associate Professor of Marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands