Controversy for conversation?


Image Source: Colonial Williamsburg via YouTube

Using images related to the deaths of 2,977 Americans to sell vacations is going to upset people. That was the reaction to a Super Bowl advertisement the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation ran in New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Narrated by Tom Brokaw, it shows footage of influential moments in American history in reverse, including “a thought-provoking depiction of the World Trade Center rising from the ashes of Ground Zero,” according to a recent news release.

“The ads are meant to show that the America we know was not inevitable. It took courage. It took leadership. It took pain and sacrifice,” explained President and CEO, Mitchell Reiss. “These ads take you backwards, down the many roads and tributaries of America to their original source: the revolutionary issues, debates, acts, and peoples that defined 18th-century Williamsburg.”

For many though, the September 11 terrorist attacks are still deeply personal. I drove by the Pentagon that morning roughly 30 minutes prior to American Airlines Flight 77 plowing into the west side of the building, murdering 184. Growing up in a northern New Jersey commuter town, many people I know lost family and friends in the attacks or witnessed them firsthand.

While Colonial Williamsburg says it was sparking debate about the events that lead to founding our nation, they sparked anger and ridicule instead:

Colonial Williamsburg doubled down to justify its ad. “We understand and respect that some of the images depicted in the ad are jarring. However, the small data point of people who objected to some of the imagery in the ad does not represent the total viewership,” spokesperson Jo Straw said in a statement. Lip service contrition followed by calling those personally affected by 9/11 a “small data point” is not one of the 3 Golden Rules of Crisis Communication.

Could it be Colonial Williamsburg meant to crelate waves given the self-description of The Firehouse Agency which produced the ad? “Aggressive growth plans…don’t scare us. We’re strategic thinkers and creative problem solvers who love a challenge. Which is good, because running from trouble isn’t really an option for a place called Firehouse.”

Controversial ads to create debate are nothing new. The United Nations Mine Action Service ad depicting children in suburban America blown up by land mines never aired, but garnered extensive coverage. Struggling with falling attendancelayoffs and reorganization following 9/11 and the recession, Colonial Williamsburg needs the attention. Since bringing on Reiss as President and CEO, they have staged stunts ranging from zombies and trick or treating in the historic area to introducing “Liberty” the dog as the foundation’s first mascot. Given the high cost of Super Bowl ads, running a controversial ad in three markets representing their “strongest visitor markets” while getting Brokaw to donate his services would allow them to maximize coverage in key markets while sparking a nationwide discussion.

This tactic requires fortitude however. Despite Firehouse’s mantra, Colonial Williamsburg ran from trouble by making the video private on YouTube, forgetting Mr. Universe‘s assertion that “You can’t stop the signal Mal.

Question: Was this ad a calculated controversy for conversation, provocation for profit, or underestimating audience?

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Lessons from lagomorphs on conversions versus engagement


We can learn a lot from rabbits. We all know that “slow and steady wins the race” thanks to the tortoise and the hare (yes, I know “The hare, I think you’ll find, is a much larger mammal.” according to Wallace and Gromit),  The Velveteen Rabbit taught us the power of a child’s love and I think Watership Down was just meant to give us nightmares as kids.

A Los Angeles-based rabbit rescue and shelter also learned the importance of conversion when it comes to social media. The Bunny World Foundation put out a call for donations to cover $2,500 in veterinary bills on Facebook, receiving “630 likes, 150 shares, 14000 clicks” in 24 hours, which are respectable numbers all things considered. Likes, shares and clicks however were not the goal however, donations were.

While this post’s shares of  may have reproduced like rabbits, donations didn’t as they only received $20. An exacerbated supporter wrote “…either we must be doing something wrong or Facebook sucks! If everyone here donated just a $1, bunnies would have 10 times the amount they need for their surgeries!”

This underscores the importance of converting social media engagement, media placements, or adverting and owned content views into the desired action. Stephen Covey’s second habit of highly effective people is to “begin with the end in mind” so whenever I’m brainstorming communication strategy, I ask myself (and the person I’m working for) “When all is said and done, what does success look like?”. With the end game in mind, I then use messages and tactics best suited to achieve that result.

Mistakes can also be converted. If Bunny World Foundation learned what went wrong, corrected for it the next time and converted a bad experience into a “teachable moment”, it could lead to future success. Patience, persistence and perseverance sounds a lot like that slow and steady thing again, doesn’t it?

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Problems Outweigh Potential For Now with Wearables

TheJerkGoogleGlassIf you have $1,500 burning a hole in your pocket or are simply an early adopter who isn’t part of Google’s Explorer program, today’s your day. Google Glasses are available for purchase in limited numbers to anyone.

Wearables like Google Glass and the Pebble Smartwatch are gaining attention and have potential, but they’re not quite ready for primetime. I received a Pebble as a holiday gift last year and had the opportunity to test drive Google Glass thanks to the guys at Social Driver a few weeks ago, and neither have blown me away.

As someone who took notes freshman year on a first-generation Macintosh PowerBook 170 and bought a first-generation iPod back before anyone knew what an iPod was, I’m all for early adoption. Those products however were serviceable right off the bat. Sure, their technology improved and prices dropped, but for the most part they were fully functional at launch.

Pebble and Google Glass on the other hand are not only making users serve as guinea pigs, they’re making them pay for the privilege. My Pebble watch was purchased as part of a Kickstarter campaign, was delivered months late and within six months had to be replaced fro a screen glitch. During the Q&A of the Google Glass demonstration, Explorers spoke of poor battery life and the glasses get hot to the touch. Because Google Glass can’t differentiate voices, anyone hijack your glasses with the “Okay Glass” command even if they’re not the ones wearing them.

The potential for these wearables providing timely information and recording biometrics can also be a pitfall. Retailers like Nordstrom’s are already tracking their customers’ mobile phones to gather data about shopping habits. Customers may be okay with this if coupons pop up on their devices for ice cream when in the frozen section of the grocery store, but the invasion of privacy can be scary to some. Sites like Facebook and Amazon track our every click in order to better market to us, what if businesses could literally track your every movement? Wearables could easily record where you go, what gets your heart rate pumping, where you look, etc.

With many restaurants banning food photos with smartphones, what limitations will others want to impose on wearable users? The law always has trouble keeping pace with technology and there has already been one case of a motorist being ticketed for distracted driving for wearing Google Glasses. There are privacy concerns for those around wearable users given how easy it is to photograph or video record others. Some see users as pretentious “Glassholes”, others take real offense to the devices, leading to assaults over fears of being recorded.

Bottom Line

While some may be willing to shell out money to help Google test a product with a long way to go, I agree with Forbes’ Tony Bradley that there are better ways to spend my $1,500. The bugs will be worked out, the prices will come down and acceptance will increase, but for now companies have convinced their customers to pay way too much for products with way too many limitations.

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Anyone Who Says “I’m a Guru” is No True Guru

HBO’s Game of Thrones is great storytelling because it works on many levels. Beyond its entertainment value, it is a collection of case studies on why leaders earn or lose loyalty.

The Season Three marathon leading up to last night’s premiere provided one such lesson. After his uncle Tyrion shows him disrespect, Joffrey shouts “I am the king!” to which his grandfather Tywin reminds him: “Any man who says ‘I am king’ is no true king.”

AnyManWhoSaysThis simple reminder that loyalty and respect must be earned by actions rather than demanded has application across everything we do as communicators.

Companies proclaim themselves the “worldwide leader” on their web page and press release boilerplates, but that doesn’t mean they are. They must have thought leadership, innovation and sales to back it up. Reporters aren’t swayed by chest thumping or credentials, they want tangible examples of why someone or something is newsworthy. Customers are influenced by how our message or product benefits them, not how great we think we are.

Agencies and consultants often try to convince clients to trust their better judgement because they’re “the experts.” According to AdAge, there Are 181,000 social media “gurus,” “ninjas,” “masters,” and “mavens” on Twitter. In the country of self-proclaimed greatest, the one who actually demonstrates it is king.

When pitching new business, convincing clients or the C-suite on a strategy, you must have a “heart of a teacher” and explain the reasoning behind your approach. Simon Sinek points out in his book “Start With Why“: “It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters why you do it.” The key to being influential is constantly demonstrating you add value and have the key insights others will rely on.

As a manager, a boss will drive employees whereas a leader will coach. Prussian officer Frederick Stueben trained Washington’s army during the American Revolution, noting that with European soldiers it was enough to say “‘Do this,’ and he does it,” but to American soldiers he was “obliged to say, ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that,’ and then he does it.” You will be far more effective as a team leader if you pull people along rather than push.

Bottom Line

Proclaiming yourself with a title is not enough. You cannot simply say you’re great at something, you must show it everyday and in everything you do.

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Don’t Act Like You’re Not Impressed: Promoting Anchorman 2 with Integration

Ron BurgundyAnchorman 2: The Legend Continues comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today, closing the books on the integrated marketing campaign promoting the film.

For more than a year leading to its release, Paramount Pictures used a barrage of appearances by actor Will Ferrell in the character of Ron Burgundy, marketing partnerships and social media contests to produce audience engagement.

But did it work?


The campaign began with Ferrell’s appearance on Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show as Burgundy in March 2012 to officially announce the film, followed by teaser trailers two months later. Full trailers were released in June and October 2013 in theaters and online through YouTube and

Appearances as Burgundy continued with numerous media stunts including: presenting at MTV’s Europe Music Awards, anchoring an actual newscast on Bismarck’s KXMB-TV, providing curling trials commentary on Canada’s TSN sports channel and an interview with Peyton Manning for ESPN. Emerson College went so far as to rename their school the Ron Burgundy School of Communication for a day, complete with a press event.


Marketing partnerships provided more ways to get in front of audiences, sell products and promote the film. The Newseum in Washington D.C. hosted a special exhibit, Chrysler produced over 70 commercials for its Dodge Durango starring Burgundy, Ben & Jerry’s released a limited-edition “Scotchy Scotch Scotch” ice cream and Jockey wrapped a line of tight briefs in Anchorman 2 themed packaging.

The onslaught extended online with an audition contest on social media on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, Google+ and Pinterest. Fans could tag videos to be considered for best anchor, meteorologist and live reporter, voted on through the web with no reward other than recognition.


Initial results pointed to an unsuccessful campaign. Despite generating over 3.5 million likes on Facebook, 170,000 followers on Twitter, and 60,000 subscribers on YouTube, moviegoers were slow to the box office. The film opened at #2 with $26.8 million, lower than the inflation-adjusted $35 million of the original, and dropped to #10 by its fourth weekend.

This may have been a result of forgetting to “always leaving them wanting more.” Promotion should have been selective, tantalizing audiences to go out to the movies. Bombarding fans with promotional appearances and reruns of the original on cable likely satisfied any longing to see the character and produced audience fatigue.

In the end, Burgundy stayed classy. The film’s eventual $172.7 million gross revenue exceeded the inflation-adjusted $110.4 million of the first. Word-of-mouth and reviews probably account for ultimately being profitable, reinforcing quality content as a key component to successful communication strategies. Paramount’s partners also monetized their marketing partnerships. Chrysler saw Durango spike 59% in October 2013 and up 50% for the year.


Making efficient use of a comparatively small $50 million budget, the stunts produced earned media coverage and social media discussion, demonstrating the power of an integrated approach. Not only did audiences see the stunts themselves, news coverage and online conversation achieved more than paid placements could have alone.

The Bottom Line

Profitable film, ROI for partners and extended earned media reach? In the words of Burgundy, “Don’t act like you’re not impressed.”

Posted in Advertising, Branding, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Marketing, Pinterest, Public Relations, Social Media, Strategy, Twitter, YouTube | Leave a comment

Publicity Stunts That Take Off CEO Jeff Bezos channeled Evel Knievel in his December 2013 interview on “60 Minutes” announcing Amazon Prime Air, a “new delivery system is to get packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles.”

Bezos insists Amazon’s drones are not science fiction. A recent Federal Aviation Adminstration ruling however grounded Lakemaid Beer’s delivery drones serving ice fishermen, showing Bezos was potentially full of hot air. If beer delivery drones can’t operate on remote, flat frozen lakes of Minnesota, it’s improbable that Amazon’s drones will take to the skies any time soon. That doesn’t matter. If Amazon Air Prime was merely a publicity stunt, it was a brilliant one.

Bezos had impeccable timing as the interview aired the evening before Cyber Monday. Amazon made itself the topic of conversation on the news, online and at the water cooler on what is considered “one of the biggest online shopping days of the year” according to

While Apple is struggling to maintain its innovative reputation without Steve Jobs, Amazon positioned itself as a pioneer. Six weeks after the drones, it announced patenting “anticipatory shipping”, predicting and expediting customer’s orders through Amazon’s shipping process. There is no implementation immediate plans, but it sustained the conversation framing Amazon as a trailblazer.

The Bottom Line

  • Be credible. Amazon got away with fantastical drones because they have credibility based on their innovation in product delivery services such as Amazon Prime shipping, Amazon Instant Video and Kindle Whispersync. Make sure that the conversation you want to start or jump into is one that you can legitimately contribute to.
  • Align to your values and brand. You can be irreverent, controversial, offensive, or even foolish as long as it is what your target audience expects. Red Bull positions itself as an extreme energy drink, so sponsoring Felix Baumgartner’s jump from 23 miles above the Earth and breaking the sound barrier fit their brand, with the video accounting for 1% of all online conversations at the time. If a stunt can be reasonably misconstrued of being out of character, you run the risk of alienating your audience.
  • Be relevant. To be worthy of attention, stunts need to relate to your audience. Adult Swim caused a Boston bomb scare in 2007 by placing LED placards around town that were misidentified as improvised explosive devices. It wasn’t until hours later that a young staffer in the mayor’s office recognized the cartoon characters because the wrong audience saw it first.
  • Make it shareable. Stunts may get traditional press, but they’re more likely to get major play online. Videos need to tell your story in under two minutes and descriptions need translate to a tweet, so keep it simple. Think visually to translate to Facebook or YouTube.
  • Achieve an objective. No matter how popular, stunts that fail to achieve tangible outcomes are failures. Canadian airline WestJet’s marketing elves crafted a Christmas miracle with video of passengers finding presents at luggage claim they told Santa they wanted before takeoff. Two months later, WestJet may have to raise fares and institute baggage and wifi fees due to a struggling Canadian dollar. Their holiday cheer may not translate into customers if they can’t compete on price.
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Influence Grows Like a Weed


The HBO series Game of Thrones (yes, I’m a nerd) episode “And Now His Watch Has Ended” provides a reminder of that fans, followers and Klout scores don’t matter:

“Influence grows like a weed.” — Varys

If all you want are followers, tech writer Lauren Hockenson explores how you can purchase fake Twitter followers and Nicole Perlroth highlights research speculating that brands, politicians and celebrities ranging from Pepsi to Newt Gingrich to 50 Cent may be doing just that. Artificially inflated follower counts further proves it to be a useless metric, beyond perhaps to boost Google search result rankings or to satisfy C-suite skepticism of social media ROI.

While we all want the perceived prestige from large numbers of fans or followers, it is a false measure without engagement. The ability to rouse people to action or change opinion makes influence paramount to numbers. Thousands of fans or followers who don’t use your product or support your cause are meaningless.

Influence like a weed starts small, spreads pervasively and is hard to uproot when established. Engage your audience with content that is significant to them and over time your influence will spread.

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