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Badvertising: Holiday Inn's Bob Johnson

In this installment of MarketSmiths’ Badvertising we remember the time that Holiday Inn got its marketing message across to the targeted customer based that it wanted, but still had to pull their commercial. What? As usual, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

Holiday Inn's 1999 Transexual TV Spot

Here's the scene: a beautiful woman struts across the room at a class reunion. The narrator lists the cost of her plastic surgery (“New nose $6,000, lips $3,000, new chest $8,000... It's amazing the changes you can make for a few thousand dollars”) while the men in the room turn to ogle her. One guy (Seinfeld fans may recognize him as Kenny Bania) decides to flirt with her—but his look of lust turns to dust when he realizes that she actually used to be a he, a former classmate named (get this) Bob Johnson

“Imagine what Holiday Inn's will look like when we spend a billion,” the narrator concludes.

Surprisingly, Holiday Inn—the blandest of the bland hotel chains—thought that the best way to get the word out about its billion dollar hotel upgrades was to make a TV spot about a transgender woman and her reassignment surgery, and then air it during the Super Bowl... But it worked.

This spot—perhaps the first to deal with transsexualism—was very popular in the ad industry and garnered positive reviews. Naturally the ad also upset a lot of people and so (predictably) Holiday Inn was forced to boot the spot shortly after its Super Bowl debut. But, shockingly, the franchisees—the mom-and-pop owners with the most to gain or lose—loved the ad. Gary Schahet, president of the International Association of Holiday Inns, said that calls ran 5-to-1 in favor of Bob Johnson. Others said 75% of the people polled thought that the ad did a good job of explaining what was happening at Holiday Inn. That sounds like a win, so why was it pulled? A bunch of old fuddy-duddy Southern Baptists complained. "It was the older people who didn't like it," Schahet said. "But then they aren't our customers. We are trying to get the young business executive back into Holiday Inn." 

So, marketing mavens, here we have Holiday Inn successfully relaying its ad message to its key targeted demographic, but they still had to pull the ad after only a few airings. That's a fail, right?  Maybe. Maybe not. After the ad's initial airing during the Super Bowl, Holiday Inn branches across the nation reported thousands of new reservations—all under the name of (you guessed it) Bob Johnson. In a statement, Holiday Inn Exec VP-Chief Marketing Officer John Sweetwood said: "We spent only $2 million on TV time and production, but we got $10 million in publicity. One might say all that publicity isn't bad." Change is good.

Here in Manhattan, the past weeks have seen massive demonstrations centered on the lack of retribution for the tragic killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. At MarketSmiths, we join the mourners—for the victims, the families, our broken system.

We also know how deeply rooted racial indignation is in our culture—and have seen how the quickly the dialogue can turn from neutral to outcry. And so we unveil this: our most somber installment of MarketSmiths’ Badvertising yet. As usual, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

Nivea's RE-CIVILIZE YOURSELF Ad Controversy

Back in 2011, Nivea skincare ran a popular commercial campaign called “Look Like You Give A Damn.” The focus was to get guys to clean up their act: tame that ragged beard and unruly haircut. This filtered into two print ads that showed well-groomed, clean-cut men (one guy white, one guy black) both holding decapitated heads representing their old, scruffy selves, pre-Nivea. Slightly weird, but okay. 

The problem was, one ad looked like this:

And the other one looked like this:

Both "before" heads look like cavemen, right? What's the beef? 

Racism, cried the public. Why does the black model's decapitated head sport a Malcolm X beard, a scraggly 'fro, a pissed-off expression and the words "Re-civilize Yourself"? Why is it that the ad featuring the white guy doesn't mention anything about “being civilized,” instead suggesting a dapper dude emerging from an all-night rager...or Vegas.

Did the campaign suggest a civility gap? Many thought so, and loud and clear. 

The camera angles didn't help. The black model posed as classical athlete, like Discobolus, set to throw a discus—er, human head—at the ancient Olympics. The white guy resembles a lit, lauded statue, like Michelangelo’s David contemplating his upcoming bout with Goliath (who, you may recall, was beaten and decapitated by David). Did Nivea knowingly take the risk of playing into racial stereotypes? It didn't matter to the protestors that Cliff Carson, branding lead for Nivea at PMK-BNC (a New York based agency), is black, too. 

Anger rose. Twitter exploded. Public outrage over the ads was so fierce and immediate that Nivea quickly pulled both ads and apologized for their insensitivity. 

The massive two-day NYC demonstration about Eric Garner is clear proof that there's no excuse for skipping a cultural checkpoint. Of course, we copywriters can't help but wonder what might have happened if the art director had simply swapped the ad copy. But we also know that as a society, we're too sensitive to risk accidental offense to either side. Shame on you, Nivea, for not considering all sides. 

Badvertising: LifeLock's Backfiring Marketing Campaign

In this installment of MarketSmiths’ Badvertising we ask the question: “Are you $@#& insane, posting your personal info for all to see?!” As usual, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! 

457-55-5462: LifeLock's CEO Dares You to Steal His Identity 

Here's an idea: if you don't want your identity stolen, then don't put out a public dare by broadcasting your social security number. Todd Davis, CEO of LifeLock personal security, did just this in 2006—on purpose—to prove the effectiveness of his company's services. “I'm absolutely confident LifeLock is protecting my good name and personal information, just like it will yours,” Davis said. Sounds terrific.  

Shortly after the ads ran, a Texas man took out a $500 loan in Davis' name. The unpaid account went to a collection agency—at which point Davis learned of the loan for the first time. Then, a Georgia man opened an AT&T wireless account in Davis’ name, racking up $2,390 in debt. When all was said and done, Davis had his identity claimed thirteen times. You can’t call it theft, can you? Instead, let’s say his identity got accosted, dumped in a battered old trunk, driven to a back alley in northern NJ, pistol-whipped, and barely saved from mafia-style execution.  

Robert Maynard, Jr., LifeLock's co-founder, said the inspiration for LifeLock hit after a week in a Nevada jail. Maynard said he’d been falsely accused of crimes due to a stolen identity. In truth, his arrest marked the failure to pay back a legitimate $16,000 gambling marker at the Mirage casino (later, he blamed it all on psychotropic drugs). Back in the 1990s, Maynard had been banned from the credit-repair industry for life, and his own father had accused him of—you guessed it—identity theft. 

When LifeLock began in 2005, Maynard and Davis misrepresented the facts about Maynard's jail stint. As a gimmick, the pair began giving out their Social Security numbers to the press, then Davis went further: He put his nine-digit number on a flatbed truck and drove around the country, claiming that LifeLock made his personal data "useless to criminals." The ads emphasized their guarantee: that LifeLock would "cover all losses and expenses up to $1 million."  

The guarantee didn’t hold water. In May 2008, lawyers in New Jersey filed the first of many class-action lawsuits against LifeLock. The FTC got involved, saying: "While LifeLock promised consumers complete protection against all types of identity theft, in truth, the protection it actually provided left enough holes that you could drive a truck through it." A flatbed truck, no doubt.

Eventually, LifeLock was ordered to pay $1 million to the states and $11 million to the feds, to be used for customer refunds and consumer education (the actual settlement was for $35 million, but the FTC agreed to take just what LifeLock had in the bank at the time). While Davis went on the defensive, Maynard resigned in disgrace.

If there is a marketing message take away, it is this: as absurd as Davis' stunt was, it did prove the Essential Law #3 of the 8 Absolute, Essential Laws of Marketing:

Make a statement with your Grand POOBA (Promise Of an Obvious Benefit, Always). A bold message that speaks directly to your clients.

LifeLock’s could have been: we guarantee your security, your good name, or you get $1 million, guaranteed. In the end, out of a total of 87 people who tried stealing Davis' identity, only one succeeded in turning it into cash, and that was because the lender didn't bother to check the man's identity, or use one of the big three credit bureaus to run a credit report. “The fact that 86 others failed is proof that LifeLock works,” Davis boasted.  

His beleaguered former partner, Robert Maynard, Jr., recently embarked on a new project: iValidate, “the world's first personal credit bureau” (sure, what could go wrong with that?), which pretty much nullifies Essential Law #5: Give Your Customers a Reason to Believe You.