business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

What were they thinking?

That’s a question that comes to mind far too often in the world of marketing. It’s a question no company wants consumers, the media or the social networks raising these days, yet somehow the question keeps coming up.

Just a week ago Bloomingdales, the trend-setting department stores known for sharp advertising, ran into a buzz saw of criticism and, no, this isn’t a time of political correctness run amok. This was simply a really bad idea.

The cause was a holiday ad featuring a well-dressed woman and man and a suggestion that, frankly, cost some folks in marketing their jobs. In the ad the woman is looking over her shoulder away from the man, while the copy directly suggested it was a good time for the man to spike the eggnog.

As countless groups pointed out immediately, that was a wonderful suggestion for anyone interested in committing date rape. Hardly a marketing winner.

So questions have to be asked: who approved the ad; were any women among that group; and if so, did they feel their concerns about such a poorly aimed suggestion might matter? If Bloomingdales can’t answer those questions correctly, the problem goes way beyond the marketing department and into the entire company’s culture.

Simply put, it’s the type of mistake that shouldn’t happen. Ever.

You'd think they would have learned from a similar misstep by Bud Light, which earlier this year had a label describing it as "the perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”

They clearly were not paying attention.

Walmart encountered a different marketing problem that also raises the “what were they thinking” point. It was almost impossible to watch television during the past month without seeing the company’s ad urging consumer to buy green light bulbs to honor veterans. Truly that’s a good and noble cause; only here again, we need to think things through.

As argued—and I’d agree—the campaign managed to come up short.

First, if you saw the ad, think about the message it sent. Yes, the recognition of veterans is a great cause, but there was nothing suggesting a portion of the bulb sales was going to charities for veterans. Unsurprisingly, that led to social media comments suggesting the genesis of the campaign was the need to move a shipment of green bulbs.

Forbes said the campaign failed in numerous ways. It found the ad weak and uninspiring and suggested it might have had way more impact showing, and on social media, allowing consumers to show, how they personally made the point of saluting veterans.

Secondly, Forbes said Walmart actually undersold the bulbs. The magazine checked the chain’s website and found many places to get green bulbs, but poor connection back to the promotion. If the campaign was so important, why not make the sale incredibly simple and obvious. The lack of connection between all the messages, Forbes said, managed to diminish the program rather than play it up.

In other words: What were they thinking?

The new world of marketing is anything but simple. Social media challenges us all to connect in ways we never imagined before. Done well, good marketing both sells and builds the brand image you wish to convey. But it is never easy to do it well. You need to think through all the angles and, certainly question that what you are saying really, truly conveys the message you want to bring.

When you do that you avoid ads that disconnect or worse, give your company a black eye, by suggesting something unsavory. It’s not easy to do all of that, but it beats the daylights out of widespread discussion beginning with, “What were they thinking?”

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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