Ad Track: Negative PR in advertising travels fast online

Dr Pepper recently teamed with celebrity "doctors," such as NBA great Julius Erving (Dr. J) and Kelsey Grammer (Dr. Frasier Crane on TV's Frasier), to bolster its brand. But given its recent public relations imbroglio, what it needs now is a savvy spin doctor.

The company has been bashed online after a Nov. 25 letter from the attorney for rock band Guns N' Roses charging Dr Pepper failed to deliver a promised free soft drink for every American if the band finally released its Chinese Democracy album this year.

The letter, which called the drink giveaway a "fiasco," was widely picked up and spread by bloggers last week.

Dr Pepper joins a growing list of marketers that have recently seen how quickly negative comments can spread online.

With blogs, short-post forums such as Twitter, video sites and other social-networking sites, "bad (publicity) spreads faster" than ever, says Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president at Web researcher Nielsen Online.

The rise of social media enables marketing mishaps "to (reach) a much larger audience in a much shorter time," says Peter Shankman, author of Can We Do That?! Outrageous PR Stunts That Work and Why Your Company Needs Them.

While there's no way to foresee every pitfall with a promotion, "Marketers need to think more like political advance people," Blackshaw says. "Political advance people are always scoping out what could go wrong, … and in an age of (viral communications) and consumer control, you really need to up the ante on advance work."

As in politics, others will seize on any marketing mess-up to further their own agenda.

Guns N' Roses had no formal tie with the Dr Pepper promotion but initially seemed pleased with it. In March, after the free soft-drink offer, it posted a statement that it was "very happy to have the support of Dr Pepper."

When the album went on sale on Nov. 23, consumers had 24 hours to sign up at for a coupon for a free bottle of the soft drink. But the website collapsed under an avalanche of response. The botched promotion "ruined" the album's release, says the letter from Guns N' Roses attorney Alan Gutman.

In a statement, Dr Pepper says it tried to rectify the Web problems by extending the giveaway window to 42 hours and also set up a toll-free hotline for coupons.

Yet Guns N' Roses is demanding full-page apologies in major newspapers and "an appropriate payment" to the band.

David Schwab, managing director of celebrity consultants First Call, believes the wide release of Gutman's letter — and the request for full-page ads — is an attempt by that camp to spin the situation in its favor.

"My guess is that Guns N' Roses and its lawyer's strategy is that the more (the Dr Pepper controversy) is out there, the more that Chinese Democracy sells," he says. "Think about the attention that the album is getting … this keeps Chinese Democracy in the limelight."

Shankman agrees. The harsh-sounding letter "in itself is a good PR stunt," he says.

Others hitting online potholes:

•Taco Bell. A battle with 50 Cent (aka Curtis Jackson) has been a hot Web topic for months. The rapper sued the fast-food chain this summer, alleging improper use of his name, trademarks and image in ads that asked if he would change his name to 79 Cent, 89 Cent or 99 Cent for a day in exchange for a $10,000 donation to charity. The blog buzz revived after Taco Bell's response to the lawsuit, accusing Jackson of "attempts to burnish his gangsta rapper persona by distorting beyond all recognition the bona fide, good faith offer that Taco Bell made."

•Motrin. In November, Motrin felt the Web's lash and pulled new ads for the painkiller after massive online criticism. The ads took a lighthearted look at the back pain of moms who carry babies in slings. But they unleashed a flash attack from new moms who felt the ads likened their little ones, and those carriers, to fashion accessories.

•Burger King. Its new Whopper Virgins campaign features taste tests of a Whopper vs. a McDonald's Big Mac by folks in remote areas of Thailand, Romania and Greenland who've never experienced either. After teaser ads that aired last week, bloggers said that Burger King was trying to commercialize innocent remote villages and push fast food onto people who normally wouldn't eat it.

Russ Klein, Burger King president of global marketing, strategy and innovation, says the company took great care to be in tune with "cultural sensitivities" and to treat those involved with "reverence and respect."

"We didn't just show up with a camera," he says. "We went through a lot of prep work."

As for negative comments, he says, "We also know we can't be pleasing 100% of the people 100% of the time."

Ask the Ad Team

Is there a hidden meaning or any meaning at all in the British Airways ad with the terminal full of water with sea creatures in it? I don't get it. —Louis Czako, Dearborn Heights, Mich.

A: The link between the airline and an aquarium isn't hidden, but not all that obvious, either. The ad promotes BA's new terminal at London's Heathrow Airport, a state-of-the-art building with speedy check-in and bag check, a choice of lounges and a really cool design.

The commercial illustrates the "calm and enjoyable" travel experience in BA's highest-volume terminal, spokeswoman Michele Kropf says. "We chose the analogy of the aquarium to draw parallels between the freedom of moving underwater and the fluidity and ease of travel through Terminal 5 with British Airways."

The fluid ad was not easy. BA's ad agency, BBH in London, used multiple layers to create the backdrop, water effect and sea creatures, all computer generated, including dolphins, turtles, manta rays, whales, seals and tropical fish. The music is The Good Life by Julie London from 1963.

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