Social Media Killed the Advertising Star

As the influence of social media continues to rise in our everyday lives, advertising campaigns are being heavily scrutinized even before they hit your television set. Viewers are taking to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other forms of social media to voice their opinions on specific advertisements.

Recently, McDonald’s released an advertisement that received a ton of backlash on social media. As part of the campaign, McDonald’s depicted a young boy reminiscing with his mother about his deceased father. As the boy and his mother tried to find something in common, they both realized that the boy ordered the same fish sandwich in McDonald’s that his late father would order. Social media users from around the U.S. weighed in, so as part of a special segment in my Burson-Bulletin series, I asked three of my colleagues from Burson-Marsteller Miami to answer some questions that I had on the subject. I weighed in as well.

Rodrigo Castro, Group Director, Ivan Ruiz, Senior Digital Strategist and Head of StudioB, and Pedro de Cordoba, Senior Director of Burson Latino, all participated.

Q & A:

Q. First things first, how do you combat this situation if you’re a company receiving this type of backlash?

  • Rodrigo: Nothing but prevention. Companies are under a lot of pressure to increase sales and revenue in an increasingly competitive market. Increasing brand awareness is becoming more difficult, particularly with audiences exposed to millions of messages through thousands of media platforms. This pressure is translated to develop more engaging messages, sometimes what could be considered as borderline tacky or unacceptable from consumers. Focus groups are not enough to test messages: common sense is always a must.
  • Pedro: There must be a balance between a speedy response and a well thought out one. However, the initial reaction should always have a humble tone and demeanor, projecting transparency.
  • Ivan: Sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. A good crisis management strategy and a strong social media guidelines document come in very handy whenever “backlash” appears in the same sentence as your brand.

This is a tough one. Companies like a McDonald’s usually conduct focus groups to test creative concepts and commercials. If they did not do it in this case, they missed an opportunity to gauge consumer reactions.  In the event that you did everything to test the creative concept and you still get this backlash, then it is best to be honest and admit what your intentions were and apologize for offending anyone.

Q. Are advertising companies “going too far” with some of these advertisements?

  • Rodrigo: Yes and no. As I clearly stated before, companies are under a lot of pressure to develop differentiated messages that sometimes cross the line. But as we understand, McDonald’s and Pepsi did not receive backlash in sales – which is what matters most. People will still buy their Big Macs and their Pepsi drinks. Amid a competitive market and saturated channels with different brand messages, are these “backlash strategies” done on purpose to put the brand back in the spotlight?
  • Pedro: Advertising companies only go as far as the clients allow them to. That said, if they screwed up, the best option is to own up to it and learn from the experience.
  • Ivan: I think advertisers are doing their best. They pressure test everything they put out there, but sometimes you strike a chord with the wrong group, and the rest is history.

Look, from my vantage point I think brands are always trying to touch consumers’ hearts AND minds. No creative person ever wants to manipulate emotions or offend their target audience. I think marketers are dealing with a highly cluttered and competitive environment and trying to differentiate their value proposition, message and story while staying relevant. Sometimes they miss the mark.

Q. As we think about the rise of social media and its influence on everyday lives, how do you feel social media affects advertisers and their mindset behind how they come up with ads?

  • Rodrigo: Buzz is everything. Even if it’s a bad buzz, the brand will continue to be on the spot. I recently flew United for a trip to the west coast. While I was expecting to see some empty seats as a backlash of their recent crisis, the truth is both flights, inbound and outbound, were completely packed! Did United lose revenue? Most certainly. But they will recover quickly if flights continue to be packed.
  • Pedro: I think the rise of social media has enormous influence in day-to-day perception management. However, the proclivity to react in a knee jerk fashion, tempted by access to social media sometimes runs the risk of reacting without thinking things through. It seems we are constantly reminded of this.
  • Ivan: Advertisers are uber-aware of the power of social media. They push the envelope in hopes that their ad will be the next viral hit, but “virality” is a double-edged sword. Some brands can afford to take chances like this… the Pepsis and McDonalds of the world can take the good with the bad. At the end of the day, I believe people will still drink Pepsi and eat Big Macs. Smaller companies don’t have those luxuries, and as marketers, we need to be conscious of that.

I personally feel that social media has become the gathering place for consumers and brands to interact. It is also the free outlet where consumers and other stakeholders can complain, praise or comment on brands, companies, customer experience and much more. Advertisers today have to recognize that whatever media they plan to place their message in, consumers and others will use social media to discuss it, whether they like it or not.

Q. We saw the backlash that happened with Pepsi’s ad and now McDonald’s, what strategies are they using in their advertisements that just don’t seem to be working?

  • Rodrigo: Are we sure they are not working?
  • Pedro: I think sometimes in the rush to be relevant, we sin of being “overly relevant”
  • Ivan: In the quest to be contextually relevant, advertisers are leaning more and more on current events to serve as the mechanism that delivers their message. Unfortunately, when you play in that space, there is always the risk of polarizing certain audience groups.

It’s interesting, because even the most tested and proven concepts can experience backlash. By the time the campaign hits the air, many layers have approved it, from the c-suite to smart marketing professionals, to legal and many others. I do believe that sometimes there is an element of bad luck and marketers need to anticipate the worst and be prepared to manage communications around it.

Q. How can companies take advantage of social media to help create better advertisements and public relations for themselves?

  • Rodrigo: The goal of an advertisement is to increase “top-of-mind awareness” in the hope it will eventually drive sales; I don’t think these cases we have been analyzing here were far from that original goal. They didn’t drive positive reactions, but they managed to bring their brands to the top of consumers’ minds, which is something that is extremely hard to get nowadays.
  • Pedro: In order to maximize social, you need to be topical, and above all timely.
  • Ivan: Companies should leverage social media to put forward a consistent message so that when situations like this occur, brands have an established history and a reputation they can lean on.

The way I see it is social media is an important channel. No intelligent marketer today can or should ignore using social media as part of a marketing or communications strategic plan.

Q. Companies are pulling ads before they hit the mainstream, what kind of strategies need to be implemented prior to releasing an advertisement on the web so that this doesn’t happen?

  • Rodrigo: Again, I do believe this is part of a new strategy. Companies may look for this to happen. I like to think of it as a controlled risk – teams are ready to work on reputation issues while revenues increase.
  • Ivan: I’m not sure this can be avoided. Very large focus groups carry a hefty price-tag, but smaller groups may not include enough variety.

Actually, we recommend clients imagine different possible scenarios and plan communications responses around each of those scenarios.  They need an outside point of view from experts not involved in the campaign development to consider possible reactions from consumers and plan accordingly.

Q. A company like McDonald’s or Pepsi will be able to bounce back from this due to the size of their company, but how would a small company bounce back from this?

  • Rodrigo: It all has to do with corporate reputation. No small company is ready to take controlled risks to jeopardize its reputation for some increase in sales. It takes years for large corporate monsters to be ready to walk the line.
  • Pedro: Think about what you want to say, a few times before you do.
  • Ivan: A smaller company needs to manage their risk-vs-reward strategy when it comes to advertising so that they aren’t exposed to these situations as frequently.

I believe it is the same process for both, it is imperative that any company considers possible scenarios in advance and creates contingency response strategies.

Q. Finally, if you had to give advice to young professionals about these situations, what would you tell them?

  • Rodrigo: Be bold, be cautious, but also be creative. Social media audience is hypocritical: today they cherish a video of a two-legged dog because “OMG how cute”, tomorrow they will slash the same video because “somebody” said they tortured the dog to do it – but in the meantime, the video reaches a million views in 24 hours. Amid message saturation in traditional and digital media, companies may use this risky, yet efficient way of promoting themselves. Could it work again?
  • Pedro: Think before you do anything.
  • Ivan: Marketing is like a carefully choreographed interpretive dance. It’s beautiful when everyone is in sync, but can appear messy and disjointed when the parts do not come together as they should. As marketers, we want to push the envelope for our clients, but we need to be sure that the message is on strategy and will resonate with the majority of our audience – you’ll never please everyone, and you have to be prepared to mess up your dance every once in a while.

For every young professional who is just starting out, do not give up on being creative. Consider different scenarios and balance the need to differentiate and be relevant with possible consumer and stakeholder responses.

Jorge Ortega, Executive Vice-President