The Top 5
5. Solving Racism with Kendall 🏴
4. Coke is a Feeling 🥤
3. Fish > Death 🐟
2. Arab Spring Ignorance 👳
1. White Power PSP 🎮
As most people do, I made my first on-the-job mistake in my very first job.
I was a blueprint copier for an architect who ate a pile of onions on his meatball sub every single day for lunch and whose office and breath still reeked of such when I arrived after school.
My job was simple. I put a blueprint page in a huge copying machine, the rollers fed it through, the page came back out a level higher on the copying machine, and I folded it back into another set of rollers.
How this copied a blueprint page, I have no idea, but I do know the job paid better than McDonald’s, where many of my friends worked, and I could listen to my Walkman while I did it.
Page after page after page of some beautifully designed homes passed through my hands into the copier, and it didn’t take long on any given day for my mind to wander.
That, evidently, was a great way to jam up the copier so significantly that the onion-breathed architect was more than a bit upset.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s not as bad of an on-the-job mistake as, say, the one a pilot or a surgeon or a roller coaster attendant could make. And it’s certainly less public than the mistakes I could make as a marketing guy.
Alas, we’re closing in on the Fourth of July, the day on which we celebrate the freedoms we have as Americans, which includes the freedom for marketing people to make That Marketing Guy’s Top 5 Cringeworthy Marketing Mistakes.
No. 5: Kendall Jenner Solves Racism
Brands that try to capitalize on divisive social movements invite scorn, a lesson Pepsi has learned more than once. In 2017, during the height of tensions created by the murder by white police officers of George Floyd, the soda company ran an ad in which Jenner goes to the front of a protest march styled to look very much like a Black Lives Matter gathering and steps in between supporters and police officers.
She then hands the cop a Pepsi, and all is right with the world.
Can we please send some Pepsi to Putin?
The spot was blasted on social media, parodied on Saturday Night Live and played a role in the resignation of PepsiCo president Brad Jakeman, who said the spot was “the most gut-wrenching experience of my career.”
Lesson to be learned: Do not trivialize important social movements by implying your product or service can change the world unless it has, in fact, changed the world.
No. 4: The Obligatory New Coke Thing
No marketing-gaffes list is complete without putting the creation of New Coke somewhere on it. The reason it comes in at No. 4 and not No. 1 on this list is that so much context has been lost over the years.
To recap: Coke introduced its first formula change in 99 years on April 23, 1985, and people lost their everlovin’ minds. So disastrous was this new product launch that the Coke we’re all familiar with came back just 79 days later.
Coke execs didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to make people mad. The company had conducted taste tests with more than 200,000 cola drinkers and found the new formula was overwhelmingly preferred to the original one. Not only that, but, equally important for the company, cola drinkers preferred New Coke to Pepsi.
Ahhh, and therein lies the lesson.
Lesson to be learned: People make product choices based on feelings, not data. In Coke’s case, they’d done their market research well. The data showed people preferred their new recipe. What the research didn’t show (because Coke didn’t ask) was what Coke made its customers feel. People develop bonds with their brands, and bonds are based on consistency.
Check out what Dan Rather, anchor of the CBS Evening News and, at the time, one of the preeminent voices of America and for Americans, said in 1985 just prior to the launch.
“Death and taxes and pictures of George Washington on the dollar bill. Those are among the few constants in a changing world. But now, another of those constants may be changing.”Dan Rather
Did you catch that? Coke is on the level of death, taxes and the dollar bill as something fundamentally unchangeable in the eyes of Americans. Having a Coke was and is more about a feeling than a taste. Coke changing its formula was akin to the lovable family dog suddenly biting the hand of the child who had been its faithful companion since birth.
Just look at how Pepsi capitalized on the situation. Go to the 2:34 mark of this video. Pepsi equates the Coke change to a betrayal. “I stuck with them through three wars and a couple a’ dust storms, but this is too much.”
No. 3: Fish Eases the Pain of Death
OK, so now we’ve talked about how people make decisions on products based on feelings. That means marketers need to be responsible with the power they wield and not manipulate emotions.
McDonald’s ran a spot in the UK about a boy whose dad had died. He asks his mum what pops was like, and the obviously oblivious mother tells him all the ways he is not like his dad. Dad was good with the ladies (Junior is awkward.) Dad was tall and strong. (Junior is short and has soft hands, evidently.) Dad was impeccably dressed and always had shiny shoes. (Junior’s about to move to Seattle and start the grunge movement.) Dad was great at sports. (Junior looks like a drunk monkey trying to kick a soccer ball).
Just when we’re starting to wonder whether Junior is actually Dad’s child, we’re hit with this “Ahhhh, of course they’re related” moment: Mom tells Junior that he and Dad both dug the Filet-o-Fish.
Smiles abound and all is right in Junior’s world.
Lesson to be learned: Don’t try to exploit grief to sell sandwiches. There’s a fine line between connecting with your audience’s emotions and creating unrealistic scenarios that absolutely no one can related to.
No. 2: Kenneth Cole and Cairo
During the Arab Spring early in the last decade, millions took to the streets protesting their oppressive governments. Leaders were toppled. Thousands of people died. And fashion brand Kenneth Cole tweeted this:
Fact is, at least 840 people had died in Cairo during its uprising. It’s probably not a good idea to market your stuff off civilian deaths. But Kenneth Cole learned its lesson when it was lambasted for the tweet, right?
While they did say “We weren’t intending to make light of a serious situation. We understand the sensitivity of this historic moment,” they didn’t understand the significance of another historical moment just two years later, during the armed revolt in Syria when the discussion was whether to send U.S. troops to intervene.
Tweeted KC: “‘Boots on the ground’ or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear”
No. 1: Sony’s White Power Ad
America’s racial history is complicated, to say the least. Marketers who don’t recognize this and keep it at the forefront of their minds when creating ads do so at their own peril. Even better than keeping racism in mind is having a diverse marketing department with people who might be in a better position to raise an eyebrow when they see a proof of an ad like this:
What Sony was trying to do was market the launch of its Playstation Portable device, which happened to be offered in the color white. Choosing to market that color choice at all is a questionable decision in and of itself. Choosing an image of an angry white woman grabbing a frightened-looking Black person by the face? Yeah, probably not the best way to go about this.
Said a Sony representative: “The images that were used in the campaign were intended solely to highlight the contrast between the different colors available for the PSP.”
What’s the saying about the choice of pavement material for the road to hell?
Lesson to be learned: Be aware of your blind spots. I am a middle-aged white dude from a relatively affluent suburban New York background. There wasn’t a whole lot of diversity where I grew up. I then went to college at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. ‘Nuff said about the diversity there.
It would be incredibly foolish of me to not take extra care to educate myself on relevant racial history and contemporary racial issues so that I can incorporate sensitivities to them into what I do as That Marketing Guy. It would also be in my best interest to surround myself with a diverse group of fellow marketing folks who can see the stuff that I will never be able to see, no matter how hard I try.
So there you have it. That Marketing Guy’s Top 5 Cringeworthy Marketing Mistakes. What would you put on this list to make it a Top 10? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Agliata is a marketing professional with more than 30 years of communications experience. Reach him at email@example.com or (352) 226-5852.
More From ‘That Marketing Guy’
Five Dumb Things About The American Workplace
Welcome to Issue No. 16 of Listicles, the feature that presents the Top 10, Top 5, Top 3, Top 100 or Top 1,000,000 of whatever it is you want to know about. Email your Listicle suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Very few of us would actually continue at our jobs were we financially able to not. That…
What Type of Bosses Do Employees Leave?
If you accept the truism that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses, the next question is obvious: “What do bosses do that cause their people to leave?” The answers to that are as varied as the types of horrible bosses, but it’s possible to roll those individual reasons into just a few bigger buckets.…
Democracy and Newspapers
The three most influential people in my life as a journalist are, sadly, all part of the Great Newsroom in the Sky now. Professors Michael Perkins and Bob Woodward (AKA Bob Woodward-Not-That-Bob-Woodward) helped educate me at Drake University, and Lisa Warren was the best editor of the Dayton Daily News’ Southwest Ohio papers who ever…
Why Your White-Collar Job Is In Jeopardy
Far be it from me — a guy who struggled to get through high school algebra — to suggest performance on standardized math tests is the barometer by which we should measure a nation’s educational system. Yet it is true that those who do well in math and science move into more white-collar jobs than…
A Big Reason Your Workers Are Cranky About RTO
Here’s a workplace truth: Management often has no clue what the rank-and-file are thinking. This is often because employees suck at communicating directly, though their fear of doing so is often justified because of, shall we say, overzealous HR departments. Too often, however, it’s because managers are so used to being managers that they’re not…
The Biggest Hiring Mistake Managers Make
I received a phone call from the CEO of the company for which I served as marketing director at about 6:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. I was waiting in the parking lot of a nice restaurant for my wife to arrive. “John, our recent hires have been horrible. Why?” he asked. This was the same…
How Data Is Ruining Baseball (And How It Can Fix It, Too)
Smart businesses allow data to guide their marketing. The ability to do this is relatively new and likely not to last too much longer. A firehose stream of information is available on a company’s marketing campaign performance, its customers and its potential customers. That stream is so strong that there’s a movement afoot to create…
Your Car is Selling You Out
On the dashboard of my car is a tiny square, just a little bit bigger than a postage stamp, that is worse than my sister ever was. If I drive too fast, it tattles. If I brake too hard, it tattles. If I accelerate too quickly — though I struggle to think how this would…
Top 5 ‘Thank-Yous’ To The Bad Bosses Out There
Bad bosses shouldn’t be. Of course, I’ve never met anyone who self-identifies as a bad boss, yet we all know they’re out there, and yes, indeed, without a shadow of a doubt, they do suck. I’ve had more than my fair share of bad bosses over the course of my career, from the one who…
Meet Johnny Boy’s Newest Client
There’s some humor to be found in the newest client on the Johnny Boy Marketing roster. Envision Benefits Group is an employee benefits, payroll and HR consulting company based in Buffalo, NY. Started just before the pandemic, it has not only survived by is thriving under owner and president Kristin Devereaux. Now to the humor:…
A Secret Look Inside a Nuthin’ Story
One of my clients is a former newspaper colleague who now runs his own marketing firm and who has more work than he knows what to do with. Truth be told, whereas once I was a mentor to him when he was a young journalist, he’s now a mentor to me as I seek to…
The Most Important Work Lesson I’ve Learned
I’m not quite sure when I went from being the working world’s wide-eyed newbie to the grizzled veteran I see in the rearview mirror when I start the car for my evening commute home, yet here we are. I’ll be 48 years old in a few weeks, and I’ve been doing this marketing/communications thing since…
WFH 4EVER? Not So Fast
It’s good to be the king.” Mel Brooks, History of the World: Part 1 I am currently sitting in an office that no one else wanted to fill. Two weeks ago, I started a new job with a company that had a zero-WFH (Work From Home) policy as one of the conditions of hiring. That,…
The Rise of Horny Marketing
RadioShack is taking a controversial approach to its social media marketing. It’s capturing attention. But will the new approach grow sales? “If you find a squirter, marry her.” RadioShack’s Twitter RadioShack getting horny with its marketing is kind of like walking in on your grandparents having sex, and yet here we are, standing in the…
Gamifying War: Where Are They Now?
Nearly 20 years after the U.S. turned Iraqi’s Most Wanted into playing cards, many of the captured have been released or died while in custody, but several remain at large. A U.S.-led coalition stormed into Iraq on March 20, 2003, ostensibly to seek and destroy the weapons of mass destruction our intelligence showed most definitely,…
Four Steps to Market Your Way Through a Recession (Plus a Bonus Tip!)
THE FOUR STEPSNo Axes 🪓Strengthen 💪Attack 🥷🏿Don’t Stop ⏳BONUS: 🥶🧊❄️ The go-to inevitabilities in American society tend to be death and taxes — and with good reason. After all, death is coming for all of us at some point, and income taxes were supposed to be a temporary fix to help fund the Union effort…
An Ugly Consequence When Abortion and Big Data Collide
Every decision carries a consequence. Economists call it an opportunity cost. Politicians often simply call it an opportunity. Parents sometimes call it grounds for punishment. Whatever it’s called by whomever it’s called, the fact is that every single decision we make sets us down a new path, a new timeline, a new reality wholly separate…
It’s a (Dysfunctional) Family Matter
Top 3 questions to ask yourself before going into business with relatives. My wife, Carla, is an amazing woman. She is exceedingly brilliant, the owner of a whole lot more A’s in school growing up than her future husband had. We’ve known each other for nearly three decades now, the past 25 as spouses. And…
The Inside Story of Johnny Boy Marketing
Big things happen in odd places and at the strangest times. I met my future wife in the basement of a dingy college residence hall. The biggest boost to my career came when I had to cancel an interview with someone who could have been President of the United States. And I realized I could…
Why So Much Marketing Data Analysis is Wrong
Any idiot can gather data. In fact, idiots are gathering data all the time. Smart people are, too. So are ants and mosquitos. Every time I drive a car, I’m constantly gathering data. My brain is doing what human brains do to judge distance, speed and alignment and how each might be influenced by things…
The One Thing That Makes a Coach ‘Good’
What makes a good coach? Interesting question, but it’s the wrong one. Oh, that question has all the right words. They’re just in the wrong order. If you want to talk about what makes a good coach, we can list a bunch of coach-worthy attributes — things such as charisma, assertiveness, fairness, consistency. But again,…
Top 3 Super-Secret Event Planning Tips
I have absolutely zero formal training when it comes to planning events. Before this became part of my job duties, I hadn’t planned so much as a birthday party for my child. Of course, I have zero formal training for a lot of the things I do in my job as a marketer and communicator.…
It’s Not the Technology; It’s Us
It’s easy to say Facebook — sorry, Meta — is evil. They do such a good job of proving the point for us. They routinely violate their own privacy policies, they know what they do is bad for people and bad for society, and they lie when subpoenaed to testify before Congress because they know…
When the Popular Vote Doesn’t Matter in Marketing
⬇️ What’s Below ⬇️Marketing: Science or Art? 🔬🎨The nature of feelings 🤗😭😡How to measure success in marketing 📊 Here’s one thing that doesn’t impress me much as a marketing guy: The popular vote. This might seem crazy, considering the goal of marketing is, at its core, to inspire the most people to buy your product…
The BM Files – Goodwill/St. Louis Aquarium
Welcome to The Bad Marketing Files, the place where we look at marketing efforts ranging from the slightly off-message to the truly horrendous. The SettingA Goodwill/St. Louis Aquarium billboard on Interstate 70 The ProblemThe billboard sends messages neither entity wants associated with its brand. Today’s BM Rating💩 out of a possible💩💩💩💩💩(Translation: It’s not good, but…
Sharing My Story Via Podcast
When it comes to podcasts, I need a 12-step program. I counted this morning, and I regularly or semi-regularly keep up with 16 of them. There are dozen and dozens of more that had a limited run that I plowed through at some point over the last seven or eight years. My addiction is a…
Let Your Storytellers Explore Their Multiple Personalities
One of the best parts of being a professional storyteller is that, if you find the right environments, you can explore the many different facets of your personality. And it’s a storyteller’s obligation to explore them, as well as to find the parts that are hidden in the dark corners or are guarded by the…
The Dark Side of Marketing: Big Brother Really Is Watching
What if I told you… … that when you visited a certain website, every single thing you do is being monitored? I’m not just talking about what you click on or what you buy. Most of us have at least an inkling that companies are doing that. I’m talking about actual recordings being made of…
The Boy Scouts are wrong: Preparation is overrated
Back in college at good old Drake University (JO 92… T-Ders will understand), I had some pretty fantastic journalism professors. There was, of course, the legendary Bob-Woodward-Not-That-Bob-Woodward, who, though he worked in Washington, D.C., during the Watergate era, did not, in fact, do any of the reporting that brought down a president. More important to…
My Most Important Interview
I have interviewed hundreds of people during my career, everyone from professional athletes and presidential candidates to the woman promoting a charity bake sale. This past week, I interviewed my wife. Her dad — my amazing father-in-law — died early Sunday morning after a two-month fight with COVID and other complications. I sit here now,…
Patrick Ewing in a Jock Strap
When I was a wee-little storyteller of 17 years, I had the opportunity to go to the New York Knicks training camp to interview their rookie point guard, Greg Anthony. At 6’0″, I was able to look eye-to-eye with the just-out-of-UNLV star while I talked with him in the weight room. Five feet away, a…
Storytellers vs. Content Writers (and why your business wants the first one)
All storytellers can be content writers. Not all content writers can be storytellers. And if you’re running a business or a marketing department, you most definitely want storytellers. So what’s the difference? There are many, but the key one is the focus. Content writers are fine. The good ones will produce lots of copy that…