When Saturday Night Live devotes an entire sketch to lampooning your new ad, it's a sign that you've messed up in a pretty heinous way. That was the fate that befell Diet Pepsi in April, when the company attracted widespread derision for an ad depicting supermodel and reality TV star Kendall Jenner joining an absurdly comprehensive line-up of diversely beautiful young people in a fake protest event.
The point of the march is vague; we see only slogans like "Join the conversation" and stylized CND symbols, but many saw in it unfavourable echoes of Black Lives Matter. And the ad ends with Jenner defusing tensions by offering a Diet Pepsi to a dishy police officer who, you know, just can't help enjoying the taste. Cut to cheering young people, and harmony among all nations, creeds, and genders. Slogan: "Live bolder."
The uproar of criticism and ridicule can perhaps be best encapsulated in a single tweet, written by the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., and accompanied by a photo of her father in a scene that's disturbingly similar to the Pepsi payoff. Bernice A. King tweeted: "If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi."
Disastrous, no? Embarrassing? Tone-deaf? Insensitive? On social media, it was hard to find anyone with a good word to say about the ad. So did sales plummet? Was the Pepsi reputation ruined? Was there an immediate hit where brands hurt most—in the bottom line?
Er, no. It's more likely the ad had a positive impact on brand awareness and purchase preference, according to Morning Consult: "In contrast to the social media furor, 44% of poll respondents said they had a more favorable view of Pepsi after watching the video, compared to a quarter who said it gave them a less favorable view. And 32% of Americans said the ad made them more likely to buy Pepsi products, versus 20% who were less likely."
Another recent so-called brand fail was the Burger King ad that triggered voice-activated Google Home devices to read out the Wikipedia entry about the Whopper. The Whopper's ingredient list was rapidly doctored in less than wholesome ways, and Google ended up blocking the ad. Another brand fail? Apparently not, as Burger King launched more versions of the ad, and in the process made itself the focus of lots of conversation, both online and offline, about the Internet of Things.
There aren't that many Google Home-enabled households out there yet. And maybe getting banned by Google got Burger King some cachet that tipped the sympathy vote its way. But the main thing was that the whole campaign gained lots of publicity.
Let's take one more so-called brand fiasco - the role of PwC in the mix-up of the Best Film announcement at last year's Oscars. "Experts say the lasting brand damage for the New York-based firm, the world's second largest by revenue, could be severe for a company that has built its reputation on accuracy," AdAge reported.
Mark Ritson, the outspoken Marketing Week columnist, thought otherwise: "Are you telling me that [the morning after Oscar night] all over London there are clients sitting in large corporate offices having urgent meetings because some bloke from accounting got a bit dizzy and picked up the wrong envelope and now, well, we are just not sure that we want to continue with that audit from PwC?"
Success From Failure: Virtue-Signaling and Cinnamon Buns
How, then, are we to account for the fact that those so-called fails are likely to have had little or no effect on the businesses attached to those brands?
For one thing, outrage is easy, but these days it may not last long or go very deep.
Brand-shaming has become a widespread behavior on social media. Someone points out that a new ad is tacky or exploitative or insensitive in some way - Cinnabon's witty tribute to Carrie Fisher is a good example - and there will always be a cohort of people who are ready to jump on to the virtue-signaling bandwagon. But there's just so much content to browse these days, and another juicy brand fail is no doubt right around the corner.
Today's waves of outrage are often mere faddish displays of social compliance.
As for the Cinnabon ad, there were plenty of people who argued that the famously funny Fisher would have enjoyed the tribute, and that the furor was just an echo chamber created by right-on, killjoy social justice warriors. (An SJW, as defined by Urban Dictionary, is "a pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments...often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation. An SJW does not necessarily strongly believe all that they say, or even care about the groups they are fighting on behalf of.... They are very sure to adopt stances that are "correct" in their social circle.")
The official media need contentious stuff to talk about, too, and so there can be news value in manufacturing a row from a few grumpy tweets. As Ritson puts it: "It has become the fashion when any major company makes a goof that...the brand in question is 'plunged' into catastrophe, the crisis management clichés are quickly trotted out and every manner of brand expert duly informs a rabid media of the untold damage that this crisis will immediately have on brand equity, reputation and the bottom line."
Other factors in the surprising ineffectiveness of brand fails might include our famous admiration for authenticity: What can be more authentically human than to cock up, after all? Not to mention our innate consumer inertia: "OK, so the ad was lame," some might think. "But I always drink Pepsi, I just do."
Perhaps, too, many consumers actually think most ads from big corporates are kind of lame anyway, and this one was just a bit more obviously so. And some may just not remember to make the association between their disapproval of the ad and their choice of drink at the till, either because of messaging fatigue or because their shopping choices are made almost unconsciously.
And all the while, the brand is getting airtime, exposure, publicity. The hypnotic, drip-drip, broadcasting effect can end up placing a product further at the forefront of people's minds so that they're more likely to recall the name, long after they've forgotten why they were cross with it.
Brand Fails That Are Really Fails: United Airlines and BP
Not all brand fails are the same, of course. United Airlines' forcible eviction of a rightfully seated passenger had knocked $770 million off the company's market valuation by the end of its first PR week from hell. And there is talk of a new voucher compensation scheme potentially costing the company millions more.
And as of July 2016, British Petroleum estimated, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill—which resulted in 11 deaths and triggered one of the world's worst ever environmental disasters—would cost the company $61.6 billion. BP settled massive civil penalties and compensation claims, BP shares tanked, forecourt sales nose-dived, and BP endured a level of public disapproval that completely undermined years of earlier work to present itself as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) leader.
Similarly, the emissions scandal hit profits and shares at Volkswagen.
Perhaps the difference here is that in these cases the brand signally failed to do what it's supposed to do—make cars honestly, fly people home who have plane tickets, run an oil rig safely, and not try to pass the buck when things go wrong, etc.—rather than just messed up its marketing.
No Such Thing as Bad Publicity? VW and The Donald
By January 2017, VW had ridden out the storm and taken the title of the world's biggest car seller for the first time. It even retained its place (just) in the Reputation Institute's Top 100 most reputable companies for 2017. The list also contains several other brands—among them Google, Adidas, Amazon, and, yes, PepsiCo—which have received their fair share of stringent CSR criticism in recent months and years. And a newly slimmed-down, chastened BP is back in profit now, and you wouldn't bet against United's turning things round eventually, too.
Perhaps, then, there really is only one thing worse than being talked about. "Attention," "cut-through," "standing out from the noise"—these elusive qualities are more in demand than ever, and outrage, mess-ups, and controversy are one, often very potent, way to achieve them.
They worked for The Donald, after all.