Two Examples of Multi-channel Marketing Gone Wrong

by | Sep 16, 2011 | Blog, Blog Archive | 0 comments

Here’s this week’s round-up of news stories that we think offer insights or lessons that can help multi-channel distributed marketing organizations.  Usually, we select five items, but this week, we’re focusing on just two because they seemed especially compelling.

Court Approves Lawsuit Over Toyota Advertising Stunt

In 2009, Saatchi and Saatchi (Toyota’s agency at the time) came up with the idea of a website called “”.  The idea was to create a site where friends could sign up 20-something guys who hated advertising for a prank that would expose them to a video about a Toyota car. 

Ads in print, online and on billboards drove traffic to the site where people could enter the name and details of someone they wanted to punk with the campaign which would barrage the designated friend with text messages, phone calls, e-mails and videos for five days. The aim was to freak out the friend by making him or her think the stranger possessed personal information about the target — phone number, home address — and was on his way to visit. 

In a trade magazine interview before the campaign kicked off, the ad agency boasted “Even when you get several stages in, it’s still looking pretty real.”  (That same interview tested the concept with members of the demographic group, one of whom said: “I thought that the sign-in process was very abstract. I was wishing that they had given me a little more of an idea of what I was getting into.”)   

Over a five day period, a woman named Amber Duick got a series of nine emails in which a stranger posing as a man on the run from the police claimed to be on his way to her home.  The fictional character Sebastian Bowler who seemed to be sending the messages to her had a MySpace page and a tremendous about of personal information about Ms. Duick.  Messages were received from “Sebastian Bowler” and others who claimed to have had dealings with him – including a motel owner trying to track him down after he wrecked a motel room and listed her as his emergency contact.

According to her attorney, Ms. Duick “was terrified. She slept with a machete next to her bed and she slept with mace. She could barely sleep or eat normally.”

Eventually, she was directed to the Toyota video in which she was told that she’d been punked.  She was not amused, and is suing Toyota, Saatchi & Saatchi, and 50 individuals for $10 million dollars for intentional infliction of emotional distress; unfair, unlawful, and deceptive trade practices; and negligent misrepresentation, among other things.

When the campaign first started, Ms. Duick got an email from the friend who set her up (actually the first message in the campaign) which suggested she take an online personality evaluation.  When she clicked on the link, she was forced to click on and accept an authorization which made veiled references to an “interactive experience” and a “digital experience.”  She agreed, thinking it was part of the personality test – when in fact, she was providing details of her life that would be used by the fictional character who was about to begin stalking her. 

When she sued, Toyota asked the court to block the suit on the grounds that the online terms-of-service agreement authorized the company to send her the emails and also included a provision that any disputes over the campaign would have to be handled through arbitration. 

A  California appeals court ruled that the ToS was void due to “fraud in the inception” because the defendants “misrepresented and concealed (whether intentionally or not) the true nature of the conduct to which Duick was to be subjected.”

The lesson for marketers:  How many marketers know what’s in the Terms of Service (ToS) or End User License Agreement (EULA) or other legal documents that go along with their digital campaigns? Is there any reason that they should?  Maybe – maybe not. 

Looked at another way, if you knew that you could be held personally liable for millions in damages (or just the personal legal fees involved in defending against a multi-million dollar lawsuit), would you take more care to be sure that the copy you approved, the campaigns you paid for and the legal agreements that were put in place around those campaigns were examined more carefully?  What if you knew that you could face criminal liability rather than just civil penalties? 

Could you face personal civil or criminal liability?  Are you sure?  The answer may not be as cut as dried as you think, depending on where you live, what your job title is, and the terms of any employment agreements or contracts you have signed.  But the real lesson here is, if you’re trying to sell something to someone, is it really a good idea to create a campaign so elaborate that they don’t realize it’s part of a marketing message?  Perhaps, as the Globe and Mail newspaper commented this morning, “The Toyota Matrix campaign shows the peril of pulling pranks as part of a marketing campaign.”

JC Penney Pulls “Too Pretty To Do Homework” T-Shirt After 4-Hour Social Media Storm

When a social media firestorm erupted around a girls T-shirt in the “Self-Esteem” section of the JC Penney website, The Huffington Post filed the story under its “Dumb Marketing” section.  190,000 other media outlets weren’t very kind to the retail giant based in Plano, Texas, either.

 A second, smaller firestorm erupted for the retailer when customers began taking to the company’s Facebook page to vent.  Adweek took the company to task for “too peppy” responses that seemed to have been written by the young lady who thought she was too pretty for grammar and spelling homework. 

The lesson for marketers:  The Seattle Post Intelligencer summed it up nicely.  “Good for JC Penney for reacting quickly and taking responsibility.”  Unfortunately, the newspaper added, simply posting this notice on the website wasn’t the best idea: 

“We are sorry, but this product is not available at this time.”

Later, the company issued this statement to the Village Voice:

“J.C. Penney is committed to being America’s destination for great style and great value for the whole family. We agree that the ‘Too pretty’ t-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale. Our merchandise is intended to appeal to a broad customer base, not to offend them. We would like to apologize to our customers and are taking action to ensure that we continue to uphold the integrity of our merchandise that they have come to expect.”

And then, the newspaper added, “Next time, JC Penney could put that second statement online so people see it immediately when they try to search for the shirt. And since everyone who is interested in this story is going to search online for more details, the company could truly “own” it by creating a small box on its homepage and link to content listing all of the facts, explaining their side of the story and including corporate PR contact info. Help people easily find the issue and what you’re doing about it – as told by you.”  

Photo credits: The screenshot from the JC Penney website comes from Flickr, where it was posted under a Creative Commons License.  The Toyota Matrix image over the log for the MTV Show Punk’d comes from the Everything Email blog.  The images are the property of their original creators.