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Learning the lessons of marketing blunders


While the emergence of digital, the wider range of technology and new innovative means of communicating with consumers are all changing marketing, it would be a mistake to assume we are now in a world of 'anything goes'.

Instead, marketing professionals seeking to move forward in their careers need to exercise some caution; the opportunity to use new media and styles brings various risks, not least the fact that better communications mean those unhappy with adverts or other marketing activity can complain more easily.

Individuals who might think it too much effort to pen a letter could fire off a quick email, or raise a gripe on social media that will go viral. In other words, the very interactive nature that offers marketers so many opportunities can come back to bite them if things go wrong.

This was underlined by the fact that the list of the ten most complained about adverts in Britain in 2014, which has just been published by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), included the three most criticised ads ever.

As ASA chief executive Guy Parker explained: "2014 was the year social media came into its own, in making it easier than ever to lodge complaints en masse."

The most complaints by far were directed at an advert by betting website Paddy Power, featuring a gold Academy Awards Oscar Statuette and a chance to bet on the Oscar Pistorius trial, with the phrase "money back if he walks". This attracted 5,525 complaints, relating chiefly to the fact that it was making light of a murder trial following the death of a woman, while the walking reference was also in poor taste given the paralympian's use of prosthetics. The ASA promptly banned the ad.

While it did not require any radically new form of media or technique to win Paddy Power an 'Oscar' for the worst advert, there have been cases where an innovative approach using newer media has backfired extremely badly.

A prime example was one dealt with by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) last year, regarding a 2013 text marketing stunt by the organisers of Parklife, a weekend music festival held in Manchester each summer. The organisers believed they were being original and interactive by sending a text message to 70,000 people about after-party tickets for the event, followed by a message from 'Mum' to be home for breakfast.

Needless to say, this blunder backfired terribly, as many recipients whose mothers had died were caused considerable distress. It also constituted a breach of the law by concealing the identity of the sender.

The use of social media to interact with consumers could have been used in this case to issue a swift apology and limit the damage. Instead, Parklife caused further offence by tweeting: "So this is what it feels like to be a jar of Marmite #LoveItOrHateIt". The ICO judged that this showed it did not take the complaints seriously.

Responding to the 76 complaints received, the ICO hit Parklife with a £70,000 fine in December, which just goes to show that when it comes to innovation, carelessness may deliver a return on investment antithetical to that intended.

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