When Marketing Becomes a Declaration of War
by Sarah Warlick, copywriter and editor
There’s a fine line between attention-grabbing, creative marketing ideas and those that enrage and lose consumers for a business. The trouble with that line is that it’s not only hair-thin, it’s charmingly movable. Good judgment won’t always let you discern between the right and wrong sides of that all-important line of demarcation. Then again, does the side really matter? There’s an argument to be made that for hotly contested issues that go viral and inspire violent disagreement, the company wins through the extra exposure even if it loses some clients and supporters.
Is it just me or do those ghostly white legs creep anyone else out?
The piece of marketing heaven/hell in question today is an ad campaign made by Dirk Marketing for Voco, a tech company that exhibited at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year. The company sent out emails inviting readers to come to their booth at the show and test the new voice-controlled music system. The heading on that email read “Play with my V-Spot” (V-Spot being the music and video streaming system). Inside were graphics that included long legs leading to red, spike-heeled shoes, lusciously lip-sticked female lips, and the message “Because oral is better,” along with pictures and descriptions of the product.
Not surprisingly, the marketing message raised a few eyebrows. Some of those belonged to Jolie O’Dell, who wrote a scathing article published on VentureBeat.com that decried the insensitivity of both Voco and Dirk for a blatantly sexual and sexist approach. She had strongly worded arguments against the very idea that this was an acceptable form of marketing, saying:
“Guys, this is why we don’t have more women in tech: It’s a cesspool. As long as we’re passing offensive schlock like this off as marketing for a major technology conference, we don’t deserve more women in tech… Voco, I regret to inform you that I will be unable to visit your CES booth this year. I moreover regret that I will never review, recommend, or use your products, no matter how interesting and innovative they are. I most deeply regret that you don’t have enough respect for me to put yourself on my level and look at the world and your ads through my or anyone else’s eyes.”
The comment thread that her article generated was extensive and heated to the point of rivaling YouTube post discussions (which are a veritable hotbed of strongly felt opinion, for the uninitiated). It included rants about gender inequality in America and within the tech industry, glass ceilings, feminism, over-sensitivity, the acceptability of sex versus violence in video games, the fact that this approach would never have seen light using male-oriented sexual words or images, marketing goals and strategies, sex in advertising and other topics. Some were well thought out and insightful and others descended into pure flaming.
Interestingly, there was no clear determinant to which side of the argument a given poster would support. Gender, marketing background and illustrated literacy level played no role that I could find in establishing opinion. As a woman in marketing who’s interested in tech, I found the ads amusing and inoffensive, while some demographically similar posters were wildly outraged.
Voco and Dirk Marketing weighed the potential impact of the campaign and judged it a net positive, obviously. They no doubt considered it edgy but okay. It’s also relevant to note that Dirk is owned by a woman, so presumably the company is at least moderately alert to the use of blatantly offensive, sexist content. I’m willing to bet neither company expected the outpouring of sentiment that followed.
So was this a terrible marketing fail or a thrilling success? There is no clear answer. The company benefitted from oodles of free advertising generated by the brouhaha. At the same time, some of those who learned about it will never, ever feel anything but outrage for Voco or Dirk Marketing.
The point is that creative marketing that gets a reaction is a tricky business. Attention is good; hostility, obviously, is undesirable. Be sure to run your ideas past as many people as possible to gauge reactions that you may not have predicted. Be prepared to take some heat if your ideas get a lot more attention than expected. Use your best judgment. Then, have fun and be amused to learn what pushes the hidden buttons that surround us.
What do you think? Deeply offensive and stupid beyond belief or harmless and witty? Have you ever inadvertently triggered the same kind of reaction at your company? We’d love to hear your opinions.