Have you ever thought you saw someone you knew, went to talk to them, but found it wasn’t them? That’s embarrassing. Or, have you ever thought ‘someone’ was a real person, only to realize they weren’t? This second kind of mistaken identity will become more common if one particular promotional trend continues.
In an age of artificial intelligence and deepfakes, it’s not surprising that some brands are promoting themselves using people who aren’t people. Enter “virtual influencers”—digitally-developed endorsers who plug products not because they like the brand and want the money but because they were programmed to promote.
Perhaps the best known virtual spokesperson is someone/thing named Miquela Sousa, or Lil Miquela. From the splattering of freckles across her youthful face to her complaints of cold temperatures outside, Miquela looks and acts like a real person; however, she’s actually an avatar, the creation of Brud, “a mysterious L.A.-based start-up of ‘engineers, storytellers, and dreamers’ who claim to specialize in artificial intelligence and robotics.”
The company crafted Miquela’s persona to be that of a “19-year-old Brazilian-American model, musical artist, and influencer” who appears to hang out in hip New York and Los Angeles locales, with real-life celebrities. The avatar’s carefully curated personal brand has made her alluring to millions of real-life fans, including more than 43,000 subscribers on YouTube and over 1.6 million followers on Instagram.
That large of a following also makes Miquela highly marketable, which, after all, is her reason for existence. Although, a computer generated influencer (CGI) can’t really use brands, she showcases ones such as Coach, Balenciaga, Ouai, and Proenza Schouler. The promotional potential of Miquela and her fellow avatars (e.g., Blawko) certainly is real, as further evidenced by Brud recently raising $6 million in venture capital and Time placing Miquela among its “25 Most Influential People on the Internet” along with the likes of Kayne West and Kylie Jenner.
But, potentially big fan-bases are not the only attractive attributes of virtual influencers compared to real ones. Digital beings don’t need to be paid. Contrast those zeros to the seven-year $75 million sneaker endorsement deal basketball phenom Zion Williamson just signed with Nike.
Virtual influencers also can be precisely controlled to do and say exactly what advertisers desire, ‘on- and off-camera.’ Contrast that certainty with the risk inherent with real human endorsers, such as Tiger Woods, whose 2009 sex scandal caused two of his biggest sponsors, Gatorade and AT&T, to bail.
There seems to be real value in using unreal influencers, but as this blog always suggests, just because marketers can, doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. So, the question: Is it ethical for organizations to employ virtual influencers?
The thought of “employment” raises an immediate concern: Will digital endorsers put real ones out of work? It seems that some displacement is inevitable: If Miquela is promoting Coach, the brand probably doesn’t need as many flesh-and-blood models or actors.
On the other hand, there are also now new jobs. Someone needs to create and manage the digital personas. So, an argument about unemployment can be countered by the age-old logic that people always need to adapt their job skills in order to keep pace with new technology and not be displaced by it: To stay employed, people who dug holes with shovels needed to learn to drive backhoes and bulldozers.
For what it’s worth, my prediction is that virtual influencers will proliferate to a point of saturation, after which the pendulum will swing back in the opposite direction, at least somewhat, as consumers reaffirm their appreciation for real people’s authenticity, genuineness, and unmanipulated humanity.
For me, the biggest ethical concern surrounding virtual influencers is the potential for deception. As consumers, it’s critical that we recognize when someone is sharing an objective, unbiased recommendation versus one with some corporate connection. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with paid endorsement, but consumers need to know when they’re experiencing it so they can raise their perceptual defenses and properly interpret the message.
For example, as a college professor, I often speak with prospective students and their families about their college choice. They expect me to describe my school in a positive light and understand that I can’t be completely objective. However, if in some social setting I happened to have a conversation with a family, without revealing my association, they might gain an unreasonably favorable impression of my school because they didn’t know that the institution I described was my employer.
For virtual influencers, the potential for deception is different in one way but very similar in another. For instance, when Prada used Miquela to promote its 2018 collection, people probably recognized the ads as corporate messages, not an average consumer’s unbiased recommendation. However, to the extent that viewers didn’t realize Miquela was 100% digital, they may have been deceived.
The reason is that there’s a reasonable expectation that endorsers, whether paid or unpaid, either use the product they’re promoting or have some special knowledge about it that makes them reliable sources of information. For example, I earned my bachelor’s degree from Messiah College and have taught there for nearly 20 years, which should give me some credibility as an endorser. It’s impossible, however, for a virtual influencer to use or otherwise experience the brands they advocate because virtual influencers are not real.
When we see a human endorser in an ad, we assume they’re getting paid, which lessens their perceived objectivity. Still, even if they’re like Zion Williamson and receiving a boatload of money for their support, it’s reasonable to think that they wouldn’t risk their reputation with a brand in which they didn’t believe. People who can command significant sponsorship dollars usually have various endorsement options and can choose reputable ones.
Although Miquela can be pictured wearing or holding Prada products, she can never experience them because she isn’t human. But, if people believe she is real, they can incorrectly assume that her actual interaction with the brand allows her to make sound judgments about it. In short, consumers can be deceived.
Some may be thinking, “But, virtual endorsers really aren’t new, so hasn’t the potential for deception existed for decades?”
It’s true that companies have been using various types of animated endorsers for a long time, e.g., the Pillsbury Dough Boy, Tony the Tiger, the Energizer Bunny. In the 1950s, Pepsodent created Susy Q, an original cartoon character, to promote its toothpaste. More recently, some companies are offering to create unique animated spokespeople that even small businesses can afford.
The difference is the technology used to create Miquela and similar virtual influencers is much more sophisticated, making it increasingly difficult for consumers to distinguish who’s human and who’s not. Therein, again, lies the problem.
When we can tell that animated brand ambassadors aren’t real, we’re under no illusion that they use the products. However, when we believe a spokesperson is human, we assume that they use the product or have some special knowledge about it, which may give us unwarranted confidence in their recommendation.
It’s fine for organizations to use animated beings to promote their products, but they should be careful not to mislead consumers by making the influencers so real that they seem human when they’re not. That kind of deception may sell products but it is really “Single-Minded Marketing.”
Unfortunately, there are accidents in life. Cars collide. Homes flood. People break bones. Insurance lessens the impact of such events, but what about damage to pizza? Well, Domino’s now offers protection for even that unexpected occurrence.
The nation’s pizza deliver leader is very good at getting its products from its stores to our doors, but it seems less confident about our ability to do the same. For that reason, the company recently introduced “carryout insurance.”
Domino’s now promises: “If damage occurs to your carryout order after you leave the store, just bring it back and we’ll remake it for free.” The firm lists a few reasonable provisos: The order must be uneaten, with nothing missing, in its original packaging, and accompanied by a receipt. The firm also offers examples of accidents that qualify for a claim like slipping and falling, "my kid sat on it," and "a stranger sneezed on it." In other words, it seems like the company will cover just about any claim consumers make.
How much does the pizza insurance cost? According to Domino’s it’s “free for all customers.” Some may be thinking, “But, there are no free [pizza] lunches,”—customers must be paying for the insurance indirectly. That may be true; however, Domino’s doesn’t appear to have increased its prices. The company needs to be careful that the costs of its pies stay in-line with those of Papa John’s and Pizza Hut in the highly competitive pizza market.
It’s also likely that pizza insurance claims haven’t taken a significant bite out of the firm’s bottom-line, which raises a key question, “Do people really need pizza insurance?”
Let’s say that someone spends $30 on a pizza pickup order, then drops it while taking it out of their car. The accident may ruin their day, but it probably wouldn’t pose any significant financial hardship. People who can afford to spend $30 on takeout food generally can afford to lose $30 worth of takeout food.
Contrast that loss to a serious car accident, a home fire, or the death of a family’s primary breadwinner. Those events could prove financially devastating, if not insured.
Such scenarios remind me of advice my dad once gave me: Insure the big things that could break you; don’t bother to insure littler things like electronics and lawn mowers. Even though they may be somewhat costly to replace, it’s worth the risk because replacement wouldn’t be financial catastrophic. I also liked the line my Dad said to salespeople who tried to pressure him to insure small items: “All your talk of insurance is making me wonder about the quality of this product and whether I should be buying it.”
My father’s insurance advice is similar to that of Todd Erkis, a professor of finance and risk management at Saint Joseph’s University, who says that “Insurance is key to protecting yourself against financial ruin.” Consistent with that view, Erkis suggests that new college graduates should buy just four types of insurance in order to hedge against possible financial hardship: health, long-term disability, renter’s, and car insurance.
Writing for Mint Life, Nicholas Pell adds just two other types of insurance to buy: home owner’s, which is analogous to renter’s, and life insurance. New college graduates often don’t have dependents and, therefore, don’t really need life insurance, but those who do should use insurance to protect their survivors from poverty.
All this to say, people don’t need pizza insurance, even if it’s “free.” So, what is Domino’s doing? In the very crowded market for restaurant pizza, Domino’s is probably trying to gain a little bit of perceptual separation from its closest competitors. Papa John’s and Pizza Hut don’t offer carryout insurance, which makes Domino’s distinct.
However, while Domino’s may have created a difference, the insurance doesn't deliver any real competitive advantage. Again, people don’t need the insurance, so it probably won’t sway many purchase decisions. Furthermore, who ever thinks they might drop their pizzas? In sum, the insurance just doesn’t offer any measurable improvement to Domino ’s value proposition.
Still, Domino’s has savvy marketers. The company wouldn’t be so successful if it didn’t. The firm’s marketing team probably intends carryout insurance as more of a promotional strategy than a product enhancement. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the insurance causes people to buy more pizzas, as long as publicity and word-of-mouth about the unusual offering helps keep Domino’s top-of-mind. That added exposure, in turn, should lead to more pizza purchases.
But would the firm really go to such lengths just for promotion? It's done so before.
Prior to carryout insurance, the company’s “Paving for Pizza” campaign represented a similar strategy. Domino’s promised to patch potholes around the country so the road hazards wouldn’t wreck pizza deliveries. Of course, a company as far-flung as Domino’s could never repair enough roads to actually make a significant delivery difference in most of its locations. However, the notion of a pizza company patching roads was so novel it captured press attention, as well as created some community goodwill. In short, the program seemed to be a very effective, albeit unconventional, means of pizza promotion.
Will carryout insurance, work as well for Domino’s? I doubt it. Despite the fact that I’m writing about it now and you’re reading about it, I don’t believe the company’s newest ploy will capture the interest or hearts of people like the paving program did.
There’s nothing wrong with Domino’s promising extra protection for pizzas; in fact, it’s a nice extra benefit, if anyone ever needs it. However, that lack of real consumer value, teamed with minimal promotional impact, places carryout insurance in the box of “Simple-Minded Marketing.”
Girl Scout: “Is this [lemonade] made from real lemons?”
Wednesday and Pugsley, seated at their lemonade stand: “Yes.”
Girl Scout: “I’ll buy a cup, if you buy a box of my delicious Girl Scout cookies.”
Wednesday: “Are they made from real Girl Scouts?”
This dark humor from the 1991 comedy movie The Addams Family may scare up a few laughs, but it’s actually a good example of the product name debate that has many people asking, “Does a burger have to be meat?” and “What makes milk, milk?”
Hamburgers are to blame for the most recent round of debate. A few weeks ago, Burger King started testing a “meatless Whopper,” a vegetable-based patty that contains heme, “a protein cultivated from soybean roots that mimics the texture of meat.”
Veggie burgers have been around for a long time, but thanks to business partner Impossible Foods, founded in 2011 by Stanford biochemistry professor Patrick Brown, the newest generation of vegetable patties not only taste much more like meat, they even bleed like beef.
Burger King isn’t the only fast food chain seeing potential in a plant-based future. McDonald’s has started selling a McVegan burger and vegan McNuggets in Europe, Del Taco will begin to offer meatless tacos, and White Castle and Red Robin are already serving meatless burgers.
For years, nutritionists have been telling us to eat less meat and more vegetables, so what’s not to like about the growing selection of ‘plant food’? The concern is that the new nomenclature, like the word meatless, confuses consumers.
For instance, Nebraska’s farm groups have lobbied for a more restrictive use of the word meat: “any edible portion of any livestock or poultry, carcass, or part thereof.” As one of the nation’s leaders in commercial red meat production, the state has a real “steak” in ensuring that consumers do not migrate away from ‘real’ meat.
Last October, Missouri became the first state to legislate that anything that doesn’t come from “harvested production livestock or poultry” cannot be called meat. That goes for lab-grown meat, like Finless Foods is creating by taking cells of dead fish, putting them in pretri dishes, and cultivating their division into edible protein.
The dairy industry has faced similar and even more far-reaching name-related challenges. For about the last two decades, producers of traditional cow’s milk have witnessed a surge in competition from the likes of almond, cashew, hemp, oat, rice, and soy “milk.” According to Mintel, dairy milk sales declined by 15% from 2012 to 2017, all while non-dairy milk sales increased by more than 60%, with almond milk grabbing a 64% share of the market.
It was in this context that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb remarked that almond milk shouldn’t be called milk since “an almond does not lactate.” Shortly thereafter, the FDA opened a public comment period, inviting consumers and industry members to share their opinions on the milk-naming debate.
The FDA is justified in asking whether there’s been slippage in the “standards of identity” that ensure consumers understand exactly what they’re purchasing. That’s its job. However, the agency would do well to look back much further than the last 20 years, for instance, to 1626 when Francis Bacon observed that certain plants “have milk in them when they are cut.” Likewise, in the late 1700s, the Encyclopedia Britannica published that “the emulsive liquors of vegetables may be called vegetable milks.”
The fact is, people have been using the word milk to refer to similar-looking white liquids for centuries, if not much longer, from a wide variety of sources. Consider, for instance, milk from coconuts, as well as milk from other animals like goats and camels. Indeed, “nondairy milks [have] abounded in many other cultures across the globe.”
Furthermore, meat and milk are far from the only names that have been extended to describe a broader range of products. Take another common dairy product—butter. Peanut butter is entirely plant-based (no dairy), yet the FDA carved out an exception because the product's creamy texture resembles butter and because few people would be eager to purchase “peanut paste.”
It’s not to say that anything goes, i.e., that industries and companies can feel free to call their products whatever they’d like. However, names needn’t be limited to one narrow product category, provided that they serve at least one of the following legitimate functions:
Most importantly, neither the product category name nor the brand name should mislead a reasonable consumer. The labels listed above probably aren’t confusing to you or the vast majority of people who read them because marketers and our culture in general have done good jobs educating us about the words’ meanings
So, most Americans know “meatless” means a product does not contain meat. Likewise, as attorney Justin Person has said, “If a consumer is confused about the source of a product labeled ‘almond milk,’ then he has bigger problems than being confused about which milk to buy.” Reasonable people also know that Girl Scout cookies don’t contain Girl Scouts.
It’s not surprising that the beef and dairy industries want to preserve exclusivity for their product category names. However, given that consumers aren’t confused by broader-based naming and may even be helped by it, it looks like the two industries are doing little more than protecting their own livelihoods, which makes their name-related lobbying “Single-Minded Marketing.”
As I chatted with prospective students and their parents at a luncheon in our college’s cafeteria, I suspected that something wasn’t going well for one of the families. While others talked and laughed around the table, one mom seemed distracted, checking her phone and whispering with her daughter. Then suddenly she stood up, apologized for needing to make a call, and walked quickly from the room, leaving us to wonder what was wrong.
Sometime later, she returned to the table with a look of relief. After others left, she told me what had happened. Her own mother, a senior citizen, had received a ‘distressed’ phone call from someone claiming to be her grandson, who said he was sick and needed money. Confused but ready to act, the grandmother called and left messages for her son and for her daughter, the mom at our table, who fortunately was able to explain to her mother that someone was trying to trick her.
I told the mom I was very sorry to hear what had happened and was glad she was able to intervene. I also said I could empathize because the same thing had happened to my mother just a couple of years before! Then the real irony of the situation hit me. Here was a family, attending a luncheon to talk with a professor about marketing, all while they became the victims of a ‘telemarketing scam.’ How could their college visit and any interest in marketing be redeemed?
People do some terrible things under the auspices of “marketing.” Granted, most people are probably quick to differentiate this type of telephone scam from any legitimate business; still, these calls and others involving more or less manipulation form a continuum that many likely lump together as telemarketing. Allow me to paint a picture of that spectrum as I see it, then I’ll return to the targeting the older consumers.
On one end of the scale, call it the left, are calls like the one described above, or worse. Some extremely ruthless individuals conduct “virtual kidnappings” in which they contact victims by phone or social media messaging and pretend they have abducted one of their loved ones in order to collect a ransom. Kidnapping is illegal and considered immoral by most rational people, so it’s nonsensical to support it as legitimate business or valid telemarketing. The practice also involves blatant deception and coercion in that the perpetrators lie to their victims and exert pressure to try to force them to act.
On the opposite, or right, end of the continuum are examples like this one: Your bank calls to ask if you’d be interested in a home equity loan or a great rate on a certificate of deposit, etc. You may or may not appreciate such calls, but you do know your bank is a legitimate business that can follow through fairly on its offerings. Furthermore, if product descriptions are accurate and you don’t feel forced to accept them, there is no deception or coercion.
Occupying the middle of the spectrum are a variety of other phone calls with different degrees of deception or coercion. For instance, at our home we regularly receive calls “about our electric bill.” The voicemail messages are vague enough to make me wonder if they’re from our current utility provider, wanting to correct some kind of billing mistake. However, I realize it’s actually some other company, hoping to gain our business.
Those types of calls are probably not coercive, i.e., if I ever spoke with one of their representatives, I could freely choose whether or not to make a switch. The initial calls, however, are deceptive and, therefore, unethical, which is not a good way to begin a business relationship or any other relationship.
Also in the middle of the scale are calls that say your computer’s software is out of date or it memory is running low, etc. Most of us recognize that those claims are untrue and there’s no way such outsiders could know if they were. So, most people see through the deception, ignore the coercion, and dismiss the calls as scams. However, not everyone does.
Not as technologically savvy as those in the younger generations, many older folks are unsure if the supposed computer issues are real or how serious they may be. So, their relative lack of knowledge makes them more easily deceived. Furthermore, concern that something bad may happen to their computer can coerce them to take unneeded action. Fortunately, however, many senior citizens will first call one of their children, grandchildren, or other trusted individual and ask their advice.
Any of us can be duped about products/services that we don’t know well. For older individuals, there’s the added challenge of declining mental and physical faculties. Their minds often aren’t as sharp as they once were. They may not process information as quickly or remember as many details, both of which can negatively affect their decision making.
In addition, declining physical skills further complicate decreased cognitive capabilities. As we age, our vision and hearing decline, which can prevent us from doing things like reading small print on product packages or catching every word a phone caller says. For these reasons older people are particularly vulnerable to illegitimate forms of telemarketing.
That last sentence and my earlier bank example point to my opinion that, despite the many bad examples, there are legitimate forms of telemarketing, namely ones that provide a fair value to consumers, that use honest communication, and that allow freedom in response, all while respecting individuals’ home lives. For instance, someone in need of extra money may appreciate a phone call from their bank informing or reminding them that it offers a good rate on home equity loans.
In contrast, telemarketing that’s fraudulent is against the law. Title 18 of U.S. Code § 1343 identifies such illegal activity as wire fraud, which involves any interstate or foreign commerce that uses electronic communication to gain “money or property by false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises.” Using the phone to scam people is a “common example” of wire fraud. Those found guilty of wire fraud are subject to fines as high as $1 million and up to 30 years in prison.
However, fraudulent telemarketing is not just illegal, it’s also unethical. It’s deceptive to mislead others about who’s calling and the nature of the call. Similarly, it’s coercive to play on people’s emotions and/or to apply unnecessary time pressure in order to force quick action. It’s especially abhorrent to do those things to individuals who are more vulnerable to such tactics.
So, how did this professor try to help marketing save face with a family and young person considering a career in the field? I explained that such occurrences of coercion and deceit don't represent marketing's core tenet of mutually beneficial exchange. At the same time, such examples are good reminders that those of us in marketing need to work harder to distance such illegitimate behavior from proper practice of the discipline.
I also mentioned Mindful Marketing and the possibility of writing a piece related to the incident for the blog. We talked about more typical college visit items afterward, but as the family was leaving, the mom’s attention returned to the telemarketing scam, and she suggested it would be good if I’d write about those issues.
When Gallup presents its annual research about the honesty and ethical standards of various professions, telemarketers typically rank near the bottom of the results. There are legitimate forms of telemarketing, but phone scams aimed at our moms, grandmas, and other older people certainly aren’t among them. Given that these practices hurt those targeted and can land the perpetrators in jail, such schemes make it easy to call them “Mindless Marketing.”
It was shocking to hear the news: TV’s beloved “Aunt Becky” charged with fraud in “the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted in the U.S.” Most people understand that a business model based on bribery is wrong, but there’s another angle to this story that's relevant to each of us, as marketers of ourselves.
To summarize the scandal, Lori Loughlin, who played Rebecca Donaldson-Katsopolis on the classic ABC sitcom Full House and the Netflix sequel Fuller House, and starred in the Hallmark's When the Heart Calls, was one of fifty people implicated in the admissions scandal that also netted actress Felicity Huffman, known for her role in ABC’s Desperate Housewives. The mastermind of the manipulation was Rick Singer, CEO of The Key, which promised to help “the wealthiest families in the US” get their children into some of the country’s most prestigious colleges.
Many tutors, SAT prep courses, and other admissions aids honestly and legally help students improve their chances of acceptance to their preferred colleges. So, how did Singer run afoul of the law? He allegedly helped his clients’ children cheat on ACT and SAT tests, and he bribed college athletic department personnel so they would claim that certain students were recruits for their teams, even when some never played the sport in question.
However, perhaps the most devious thing Singer did was create “The Key Worldwide Foundation,” which was supposedly a charity that funded programs for underprivileged children in the U.S. and abroad. In reality, the Foundation served as a front for money-laundering, or a way for the wealthy to pay Singer who then channeled bribes to accomplices on college campus that included USC, Yale, and New York University, among other prestigious schools.
As someone who works in higher education, has one child who recently graduated from college, and has another who is currently making his college decision, the admissions scandal hit close to home. However, the scandal is even more unsettling to me as a marketer.
No, I’m not just talking about what Singer did. His bad decisions to build a business based on cheating and bribery and to operate a fake foundation were certainly appalling and surprising. What was even more amazing to me was the apparent ease in which he secured willing parties to the schemes, not just from the general population but from those representing high society and higher education—people who stereotypically ‘should know better.’
In addition to accomplished actresses Loughlin and Huffman, alleged scandal participants include an array of elite professionals from business, academia, and other fields. Some of the specific individuals implicated, along with their current or former positions, are:
Why would so many smart and talented people risk their reputations and/or careers to associate with Singer. The motives were likely mixed. Of course, many of the participants were parents who may have been willing to do anything to see their children succeed. Those who accepted bribes, probably wanted the money. Some may have felt pressure to assist for the good of their institution. Maybe some saw or heard of others doing similar things and rationalized ‘there’s safety in numbers.’
Whatever the motive, I doubt that many of the participants, if any, seriously thought that they would get caught. If they did, they probably wouldn’t have participated. Instead, they operated under the delusion that what could be hidden from public view didn’t matter.
That misconception is one of the biggest fallacies of marketing, in general, and personal branding, specifically. In an article I wrote a couple of years ago, I aimed to debunk that myth by suggesting that a personal brand consists of three elements: character, competencies, and communication. I likened the first two components to the layers of a cake and the last one to its icing.
Some individuals erroneously act as if they can overcome flawed character and inferior skills by spreading on a thick layer of overly flattering or even disingenuous communication. Besides being dishonest, this approach only works for so long. Eventually cracks in ‘the cake’ show through the communication. Unfortunately for them and others impacted by their indiscretions, those involved in the college admissions scandal seemed to subscribe to this hollow approach to personal branding.
As I was writing this blog post, my wife shared with me some very sad news. A good friend of ours from early in our marriage had passed away suddenly at home, at the age of 58. Mark Sneff was someone who built his personal brand the right way. Even as he developed his competencies to rise to the top of the HR profession, his character exuded integrity. Mark also was uniquely gifted at communicating “the truth in love”: He could offer an honest critique that felt like a high compliment.
As the outpouring of fond remembrances on his LinkedIn page suggests, Mark was a widely loved individual who many held in high regard. I’m not sure he thought much about personal branding. I am very confident, though, that he never would have resorted to a ruse to advance the educations or careers of his two children, who he loved greatly. Interestingly, Mark was the first person I ever invited to speak to my college classes.
It’s so nice to know people who ‘market themselves’ the right way. The recent college admissions scandal should be a reminder that it only take a moment to destroy a personal brand that took decades to build. Unfortunately, that fact means that Loughlin and all who participated in Singer’s schemes, not only injured themselves and others, they’re also guilty of “Mindless Marketing.”
The stage for a college basketball game couldn’t get much bigger: two top-ten teams in a packed arena, one of the best rivalries in all of sports, several projected NBA draft picks in the lineup, two hall of fame coaches on the sidelines, the likely NCAA player of the year on the court, and the 44th president of the United States in the stands. Then a piece of footwear malfunctioned, and the stock price of the world’s most iconic sports brand took a dive.
This past Wednesday, #1 Duke hosted #8 North Carolina for one of the most highly-anticipated men’s college basketball games in recent memory. Tickets were selling at Super Bowl-like prices, not just to see the two storied programs clash, but also to witness what was sure to be a marquee performance by one of the most talented and exciting college athletes ever—Duke’s Zion Williamson.
Just an 18 year old, standing 6’ 7” and weighing 285 lbs., Williamson’s unique combination of extraordinary basketball skill and incredible athleticism had captured the attention of all college basketball fans, international news media, and every NBA team, making him the odds-on favorite to be the first choice in the league’s next draft. Then the unimaginable happened.
Just 33 seconds into the game, Williamson received the ball, took a few dripples, planted his foot near the foul line, and fell awkwardly to the floor, while a look of pain raced across his face. As those watching gasped, the cause of the slip quickly became apparent: Williamson’s foot had burst through his Nike sneaker. Camera footage even caught former President Obama, pointing to the court and saying “His shoe broke.”
The story spread like wildfire over traditional and social media, as sports analysts, basketball fans, and others reacted. Many expressed amazement at the occurrence. Rival sneaker maker Puma tweeted snarkily “wouldn’t have happened in the pumas.”
Nike execs were undoubtedly reeling from what must have felt like their worst nightmare: The best known player in college basketball and a likely NBA superstar had just suffered an injury because of their shoe. Not only did the chances of signing Williamson to a future multi-million-dollar endorsement deal drop precipitously, the endless images of the prodigy wreathing in pain with foot popped through the side of his Nikes, was a picture that athletes and other sneaker buyers would not soon forget.
Nike did wish Williamson well: “We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery.” The same company spokesman added, “The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.” Still, the day after the blowout, Nike’s stock fell by 1.05%.
Was Nike simply the sufferer of a very unfortunate accident at one of the worst possible moments? Probably not. It seems that Williamson’s shoe blowout could have been predicted and prevented in light of previous player experiences, as well as others’ product reviews.
In 2016, the foot of Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon blew through the side of some Nikes when he landed after a dunk. Two years earlier, in the same NBA season, Golden State’s Andrew Bogut, the Spur’s Manu Ginobili, and the Sixer’s Tony Wroten, all experienced major Nike malfunctions.
Of course, one can argue that Williamson and these professional athletes put more strain on a pair of basketball shoes than the average sneaker wearer does, which is probably true. Many average wearers, however, also have experienced quality issues with their Nikes. Some have been frustrated enough to upload their sneaker stories to YouTube, for instance:
Besides these sad stories, others have posted about similar durability issues with their Nike Air LTD’s, their Nike TN’s, and their Nike SB Diamond Dunks.
Four years ago Nike pulled the Lebron 12 from the market on the day of its scheduled release due to quality concerns. About three years ago KicksOneTwo noted ongoing quality control issues with Nike sneakers.
But, Nike’s annual footwear revenue is over $21 billion, which means it sells hundreds of millions of shoes a year, so aren’t there bound to be some production problems? Yes; however, it’s curious that in so many of the defect videos, the problem is the same even for different kinds of Nikes—the shoes just come apart, similar to the way they did for Williamson and for the NBA players mentioned above.
I’ve also had a similar experience with the brand. It had been several years since I’d gone running, when I decided to put on an old pair of Nike running shoes I owned and take a jog around the neighborhood. It wasn’t long into the run when I started to hear an unusual noise and feel a flapping under my feet. I soon realized the soles were falling off my running shoes. Granted, it was an old pair of sneakers. Still, I’ve owned many different styles and brands of athletic shoes over the years, including ones that I’ve worn much harder, but that’s been the only time anything like that has happened to me.
So, maybe Nike does have quality issues that need to be addressed, but some may be wondering what they have to do with the company’s marketing? Well, effective marketing involves much more than what a company says, or communicates.
Every marketing students learns the four P’s of the traditional marketing mix: product, place, promotion, and price. A primary objective of an entire organization, not just its marketing department, should be to ensure that each “P” meets the target market’s needs, as well as the organization’s goals, ultimately creating a mutually beneficial exchange.
However, if a company’s product is deficient in some way, it may overcompensate with another P, often promotion, which reminds me of a metaphor I've used before—baking a cake. Sometimes a cake comes out of the oven with cracks, which can be hidden with a layer of icing. The deeper the cracks, the thicker the icing needed to cover them.
It seems that Nike shoes on whole have some “cracks,” which the company has adeptly covered over the years through enticing layers of communication, ranging from highly-produced TV commercials, to prominent team sponsorships, to superstar endorsers.
That’s not to say that Nike’s value proposition is just a façade—not by a long shot. The company generally makes good quality products that serve people well, otherwise it wouldn’t be the world’s most valuable sports brand. Still, a significant number of people probably do buy into Nike more because of the icon’s icing than the consistency of its cake.
I still haven’t seen from Nike a true apology to Williamson for the shoe blowout. Saying that it wishes him well and promising to investigate the issue do not constitute a confession. Perhaps for legal reasons, Nike really hasn’t taken ownership of the incident.
No company or product is perfect; accidents happen. However, even for a company as big as Nike, the reoccurrence of such high-profile product malfunctions should give everyone pause, from the guy wanting to jog around his neighborhood to the next NBA superstar looking to ink a multi-million-dollar shoe deal. Nike will recover from the latest incident, but the injury to Williamson and the damage to the company's brand make what led up to the shoe blowout “Mindless Marketing.”
You’re at a restaurant with friends and order a pepperoni pizza. The waiter brings the pie, which has a single piece of pepperoni in the middle. Your whole table expresses surprise, to which the server replies, “The pizza has pepperoni, so it is a ‘pepperoni pizza.’” Most people would not appreciate that response, yet that appears to be the tack some food marketers are taking in promoting their whole grain products.
You’ve probably noticed the phrase “whole grain” appearing more and more on product packages, ranging from breakfast cereals to bread. What’s your interpretation when you see “whole grain” on the front of a box? It’s reasonable to assume that all of the product’s grain content comes from whole grains, or at least that whole grain is the primary/first ingredient. However, when you turn the box around to read the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) required nutrition and ingredient labeling, there’s often an unsettling surprise.
Many products that promote themselves as being made from “whole grain” actually contain very little whole grain. Instead, their primary ingredient is refined flour, “a pulverized version of what may, at some point, have been a whole grain.” Whole grain contains every part of a grain kernel, “the bran, the germ and the endosperm (the inner most part of the kernel),” whereas the process of refining flour often involves “stripping off the outer layer, where the [more nutritious] fiber is located.”
How is this potentially misleading labeling allowed? Many blame lax directives by the FDA, which last issued “draft guidance on whole grain labeling in 2006.” The FDA, which regulates food labeling, continues to allow food manufacturers to print “whole grain” on the front of their packages without any absolute or relative reference information, i.e., how many grams of whole grain the product contains or how much whole grain there is relative to refined flour.
But, does printing “whole grain” on the front of a food package really deceive consumers? Several significant stakeholder groups believe it does. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has advised the FDA to “require firms to disclose either the percentage of whole grains and refined grains on pack, or the grams of both refined and whole grains per serving.” Similarly, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington DC-based consumer advocacy group, has “urged the agency to make whole grain labeling clearer to consumers.”
Whole grain labeling becomes even more confusing when it appears on “hearty-looking, and sometimes artificially colored,” food items like multigrain or wheat bread. Such mismatched visuals are especially misleading for the elderly.
But, as consumers, don’t we bear responsibility for what we place into our grocery carts and eventually into our mouths? All we need to do is turn the package around and read the FDA-mandated list of ingredients to see where whole grain ranks into the mix.
Consumers should be expected to act rationally and make logical interpretations about product labeling. However, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it’s unfair to subject people to deceptive messages that a “reasonable consumer” would find misleading. Courts have applied this reasonable consumer standard in ruling against those employing whole grain deception.
The most notable litigation likely has involved one of the best-known snack crackers, Cheez-It, the product of one of the world’s leading food manufacturers--Kellogg’s. In December of 2018, a second circuit appeals court ruled against the packaged-goods icon in a class action lawsuit that claimed deceptive labeling on “Whole Grain” Cheez-Its, a relatively new extension to the company’s flourishing cracker line.
Printed on the front of the box, in large letters, is the phrase “WHOLE GRAIN.” Above those words, in a much smaller font, are the words “MADE WITH.” Meanwhile, a very big (4.5” x 4.5”) and unusually dark Cheez-It serves as a background image. Despite those distinct package design elements, which are very different than those of Original Cheez-Its, when one turns both boxes to the side, the nutrition facts for each list “enriched flour,” not whole grain, as the first ingredient.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the second circuit appeals court agreed with the consumer plaintiffs, issuing a unanimous decision that said the whole grain cracker’s nutrition facts “contradict, rather than confirm, [Kellogg’s] ‘whole grain’ representations on the front of the box.”
Kellogg’s effort to include more whole grain in its crackers is good in that “scores of studies link the amount of whole grain [people consume] to better health.” So, the 8 grams of whole grain found in a serving of Cheez-Its can help get people closer to the target daily intake of 48 grams of whole grains for adults.
The problem, however, is that when the front of a package promotes “WHOLE GRAIN” in large letters, against a dark background, it’s reasonable for consumers to conclude that the product’s principal ingredient is whole grain. People might even presume that the crackers are somehow healthy, which is a hard argument to make for any snack cracker, including Cheez-Its, which have the following daily values: total fat–10%, saturated fat–8%, sodium–10%, and total carbohydrates–6%.
Consumers should read the labels and exercise good judgment for the products they use. However, food marketers also should help people make right choices and not mislead them with mixed messages on product packages. Their continued prevalence on supermarket shelves suggests that Kellogg’s Whole Grain Cheez-Its are a success, but the cracker's first ingredient really is “Single-Minded Marketing.”
When I was growing up, our family had a small, easily-provoked dog. He was responsible for holes in many pairs of my socks from times I tried to slip past him while he was in an especially protective mood. The person he guarded was my mother because she made sure he had food. Our dog knew better than to ‘bite the hand that fed him.’ I wonder, was our pet smarter than one of the world’s leading consumer products companies?
If you haven’t seen it, Gillette, the global purveyor of men’s personal care products, recently released a video ad titled “We Believe: The Best a Man Can Be.” The 1:49 minute commercial doesn’t push razors, rather it’s an image-building ad that renounces two contemptable behaviors that some men commit: sexual harassment and bullying.
The ad showcases an array of mainly scripted clips in which males, some old, some young, enact a variety of despicable acts like groping women and punching their peers. Meanwhile, a chorus of other men chants a unison refrain of rationalization, “Boys will be boys.”
The ad’s narration and text overlays provide corrective commentary:
“We believe in the best in men.”
“It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best.”
“We are taking action at thebestmencanbe.org”
In many ways, Gillette’s messaging makes sense. The company has taken a stand against two terribly wrong and destructive behaviors and called out the men who commit them. Using a powerful quote from actor-turned-sexual-harassment-activist Terry Crews, the ad also encourages every man not to stand idly by when they see such reprehensible actions but to intervene: “Men need to hold other men accountable.”
Despite all the apparent good, the commercial has quickly become a lightning rod for controversy. Dozens of media, from Advertising Age, to Glamour, to USA Today, have run articles about the ad. As one might imagine, some commentary from the authors as well as from the general public has been positive, while other responses have been quite negative.
For instance, @pstdavid_ tweeted, “Finally got a chance to see this #GilletteAd. Quite honestly, I don’t get what all the fuss is about. In my opinion, they’re not “taking a stand on toxic masculinity” or ‘stealing your manhood.’ All they’re suggesting is that you be a decent human being. It’s not that difficult.”
Another Gillette consumer, however, tweeted a picture of his hand poised above a trash can, about to discard the Gillette razor he received on his 18th birthday and used for the past 15 years, including through basic training and four deployments. (1) The soon-to-be-former customer lamented, “since @Gillette thinks I’m a bad person, I’m throwing it away.”
Another user, @davidliedtka, took an even more extreme approach, placing his Gillette shaving creme and razor in an oven and setting the temperature to 505 degrees.
Wow. Those are strong reactions. Does Gillette or any organization that’s trying to right serious social wrongs deserve such reprisals?
The first time I saw the commercial, my reaction was generally positive: A strong brand that has built a solid reputation among millions of men was using that influence to ask them to be better. Such a plea from a huge corporate player might stand a chance of making a difference in our world. Still, there were things about the spot that didn’t seem right.
A second time through the ad, I noticed more of the agency’s specific creative decisions. For instance, while the spot’s small amount of real video footage worked, the many acted segments looked overly artificial and contrived, even though they depicted terrible events that unfortunately occur. The use of both real and scripted video seemed like a mismatch.
I hadn’t thought much more about the ad, until one of my marketing students emailed me a link to another company’s commercial that was purportedly a response to Gillette’s ad. The next day he asked if I had watched the ad. I had been very busy, so I replied I hadn’t but I was looking forward to seeing it soon.
That night I opened his email and clicked the YouTube link, which took me to an ad posted by Egard Watch Company. Viewing the 1:57 minute commercial just once, changed my perspective of Gillette’s ad.
Egard’s commercial opens with several male firefighters battling an inferno, then quickly cuts to one of them carrying a young girl safely away from the flames. Meanwhile, a narrator asks, “What is a man?” The ad continues with a wide variety of real video clips, many showing men doing very difficult or even dangerous physical labor, while the narrator poses additional questions like “Is a man brave?”, “Is a man a protector?”, and “Is a man disposable?”
The spot also shares some very sobering statistics, such as:
The commercial concludes on a positive note, asking “Is a man trying?” and offering the company’s view of masculinity: “We see the good in men.”
As marketer, I realize that the right music with moving images can tug at one’s emotions; however, Egard’s ad resonated with me, and perhaps the 324,000 people who have liked, it for another reason. Egard reminded us of the many men in our lives that we have known and loved.
The ad caused me to remember my grandfathers: one a coalminer, the other a farmer. To support their families, both did very hard, physical work that must have greatly tested both their bodies and their minds. Having experienced the ravages of WW II, my father-in-law, emigrated from Ukraine, to Brazil, to the United States, where he worked for over 30 years in a bearing factory as a tool and die maker—labor that likely explains his great loss of hearing today. My own father was not able to finish high school, yet he started his own business at age 25 and worked tirelessly with my mother to earn enough to put four children through college.
None of these men were/is perfect. Neither is their grandson/son—I’ve made plenty of mistakes; although, I don’t think I’ve done anything that someone could call bullying or sexual harassment. Most men probably can say the same. Most of the mistakes we make are not because we’re men; they’re because we’re human.
The problem with Gillette’s ad is that it stereotypes men. Not all males act like Harvey Weinstein or ‘Scott Farkus,’ the bully from A Christmas Story. In fact, the vast majority do not. Of course, Gillette’s ad doesn’t directly say that all men are sexual predators or bullies, but it does put all men in the same stereotypical boxes through some subtle visual and verbal suggestions.
One such insinuation in Gillette’s spot is the seemingly infinite lineup of men, all standing behind their BBQ grills with arms folded, chanting in unison, “Boys will be boys.” The ad’s narration also makes a stereotypical suggestion by tagging onto Crew’s “Men need to hold other men accountable” quote, adding: “ . . . accountable to act the right way; some already are, in ways big and small. But some is not enough.” I’d like to reiterate the belief that it’s most men who are acting the right way, not some.
Another Twitter user, Melissa Chen (@MsMelChen), who self-identifies as Asian, supports the suggestion that Gillette’s ad stereotypes men. She says:
“I can get behind the message that we all can be better. But the #GilletteAd ended up painting an entire demographic with a negative stereotype perpetuated by a few. Imagine the uproar if it was an ad about a racial group with higher crime rates saying, “‘you can be better.’”
Of course, on top of all this analysis is the fact that men are Gillette’s main target market.* Its iconic tagline is “The Best a Man Can Get.” Given that our family’s dog knew better than to bite the hand that fed him, it’s hard to imagine why one of the world’s biggest brands would want to risk ‘cutting the faces it shaves,’ especially when already on the ropes in a fight against Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club.
One instance of bullying or one case of sexual harassment is one too many. As such, Gillette can be commended for taking a stand against those injustices and for suggesting that others do the same. However, the company should have known much better than to unfairly throw its entire target market under the bus with broadly generalized talk of “toxic masculinity.” It’s wrong to degrade others in any way, including by negatively stereotyping, which makes Gillette guilty of “Mindless Marketing.”
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Gillette does not make products for women.
Have you ever been photobombed? Friends and family often have fun slyly inserting themselves into each other’s pictures. Sometimes it’s a complete stranger who appears in the background of a vacation photo, smiling for the camera. People are used to those kinds of photobombs, but do A-list celebrities expect such interlopers on the red carpet of a major awards show?
Fiji Water Girl, perhaps the most famous photobomber ever, rose to global prominence in Beverly Hills, just this past weekend. Like other award programs, the Golden Globes features a preshow red carpet event during which the many talented people of television and film stroll in front of the media while slowing making their way into the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
The promenade of stars in elegant evening gowns and stylish tuxedos provides countless photo opportunities that the celebrities graciously accommodate. This time, however, as many of them posed for the paparazzi, the same, solitary figure appeared behind them: Fiji Water Girl. Her intriguing presence in the background of so many popular celebrities’ pictures ignited a social media firestorm—Who is that girl and how did she get in the images of all those icons?
For each Golden Globe awards, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) selects a small number of companies to be
“awards sponsors,” which means they help underwrite the cost of the program, and in return, they are permitted a demure presence at the event that includes sharing their prestige products with the program’s distinguished guests. This year’s awards sponsors were Moët & Chandon Champagne, Lavazza Coffee, Lindt Chocolates, and, of course, Fiji Water.
Fiji outfitted several young, attractive women in matching royal blue gowns, and positioned them on the red carpet, holding clear trays of the firm’s trademark bottles. Ostensibly, the idea was that thirsty guests would avail themselves of the product samples, appreciate the refreshment, and gain a positive impression of the brand. However, one particular model,
Kelleth Cuthbert, used some strategic photobombing to parlay her gig into so much more.
As mentioned above, Cuthbert somehow managed to place herself in the background of photos of a variety of top celebrities including Jim Carrey, Idris Elba, Judy Greer, Eric Lange, and Tony Shalhoub, often making “direct – and sultry – eye contact with the camera.” Social media shares of the pics quickly made Fiji Water Girl one of the web’s hottest trending topics and, according to Apex Marketing, earned Fiji about $12 million in free media exposure.
So, the $12 million question is: Was Cuthbert’s photobombing serendipitous, or was it planned?
Fiji seemed surprised by all the attention, suggesting that although it appreciated the extra exposure, it hadn’t tried to orchestrate it. The company tweeted: "We're so glad everyone is talking about our water! *senses ominous presence* She's right behind us, isn't she? #FIJIwatergirl.”
It’s also worth noting that of the several Fiji Water girls stationed on the red carpet at the Globes, Cuthbert was the only one whose presence went viral. If Fiji truly had been trying to gain mass media attention, wouldn’t more of its models have been found photobombing celebs?
All the above makes it seem like Cuthbert may have ‘gone rogue’ and taken up the photobombing herself. Since her meteoric rise to stardom, the model has had several opportunities to address such claims. She’s often suggested that her presence in so many celebrities’ pics was unplanned, for instance:
“There’s tons of photographers everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you stand, you’re in the crossfire of every shot.”
“No matter where you move, you’re in somebody’s shot. I don’t know, you just have to look at what you’re doing and be aware of where everyone is. But know that you can’t avoid it.”
“I don’t even think there was a point where I made any conscious decision [to lean into the photography]. I think from so many years of modeling, when I hear a shutter, I just kind of give a face.”
On the other hand, Cuthbert told a Los Angeles times reporter that “It’s all strategic” and “You’ve got to angle.” She also hasn’t shied away from the cameras since the Golden Globes, appearing on Inside Edition to describe her photobombing experience, taping her own mock award acceptance speech for YouTube, and making a cameo on the Late Show with James Corden.
Not having been there or spoken with Cuthbert, it’s hard to evaluate her somewhat conflicting statements and other disparate evidence. One person who was at the last Golden Globes and has many years of experience with paparazzi is accomplished film actress Jamie Lee Curtis . She expressed clear and strong sentiments about what happened to her on the red carpet:
“I specifically moved away from the blatant promotions by Fiji and Moet where young women with their trays filled with their wares stood near a designated camera. I knew why there was a photographer poised there and I moved away as I said out loud that I didn’t want to be doing advertising for either. Clearly this angle shows that I moved from her being behind me and yet from the side it still happens. The sponsors of events need to get permission from people when they get them to take their picture next to products.”
Some may suggest that Curtis overreacted to what occurred or was too cynical to think sponsors try to stage such photo ops. However, Business Insider has corroborated her claims, reporting that a specific Fiji-commissioned photographer was the initiator of the photobombing strategy.
Stefanie Keenan, the photographer contracted through Getty Images, was at the Golden Globes for the purpose of taking photos that would “elevate” Fiji, which mainly meant getting pictures of celebrities drinking the water. Cooler temperatures, however, led few stars to take the samples, so, according to Getty’s vice president of global entertainment Kirstin Benson, Keenan “came up with the idea to have a Fiji brand ambassador creep in to some shots.”
This revelation certainly supports Curtis’s experience, while contradicting many of the things that Cuthbert said. It seems, then, that the photobombing was the collaborative effort of Keenan and Cuthbert. Fiji corporate also bears responsibility in as much as it contracted with the companies that provided the photographer and the model.
But even if the photobombing was intentional, is there anything wrong with it? As mentioned at the outset of this article, it’s often funny when people photobomb others. That photobombing takes on a different meaning, though, when the pictures are used for commercial purposes.
As Curtis suggested, people, whether celebrities or ordinary citizens, have the right to choose the companies they support. You probably wouldn’t want your likeness associated with an organization whose mission you don’t endorse. You also wouldn’t want a company to profit from the use of your image without your consent.
However, that’s how Fiji unfairly benefited from the photobombing. Although the company undoubtedly paid for the privilege of being one of the few Golden Globe awards sponsors, it didn’t secure permission from or provide payment to Jamie Lee Curtis, Jim Carey, or other celebrities whose personal brands it co-opted without their consent.
Some may say that no one would assume Curtis endorses Fiji Water just because a model bearing the firm’s bottles appears behind her in a picture. A lack of an express endorsement is certainly significant; however, simply showing Curtis and Fiji together starts to establish a connection in people’s minds, especially when the picture keeps reappearing. Branding often leverages such repeat associations, as when a brand uses the same colors and fonts.
Cuthbert’s ‘performance’ on the red carpet at the Golden Globes made her and Fiji Water viral stars. They owe that celebrity status, however, to the real stars whose painstakingly-developed personal brands Fiji and company commandeered. Hopefully photobombing people with commercial content won’t catch on, as it’s clearly a picture of “Single-Minded Marketing.”
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