Adversarial Advertising

Edgy ads are a staple of advertising, attempting to break through the communication clutter and jolt the viewer. As Tom Altstiel and Jean Grow point out in Advertising Creative, edgy ads risk offending the general audience to appeal to the target audience, deliberately driving “a wedge” between the audiences. Altstiel and Grow warn about going too far, which two recent campaigns have done.

Protein World. UK-based supplement company Protein World launched a display advertising campaign in the London subway system asking “Are You Beach Body Ready?” (Note: linked article contains photos of protest signage with blunt language.) A gorgeous, toned blonde in a yellow bikini dominates the design. Thematically similar “get ready for summer” ads have been standard issue for diet products, fitness clubs and plastic surgeons for decades; however, this ad struck a nerve, triggering a social media backlash punctuated by poster defacing and public protests. Global news media seized on the controversy.

Protein World struck a defiant tone on Twitter, using the hashtag #getagrip and retweeting supportive posts from British TV personality Katie Hopkins who called protestors “feminazis,” “chubsters,” and “fat.” After the company declared the ad would remain, it was pulled when the Advertising Standards Authority announced an investigation to determine if the campaign “breaks harm or offense rules or is socially irresponsible.”

Bud Light. As part of its “Up for Whatever” marketing campaign, Bud Light shipped bottles with labels featuring the tagline: “The Perfect Beer for Removing ‘No’ from Your Vocabulary for the Night.”

As seen with Protein World’s campaign, digital protests arose, saying the tagline encouraged rape culture and flew in the face of the “No Means No” campaign to stem sexual assaults on college campuses. Also in parallel, major media covered the controversy. However, Anheuser-Busch deviated from Protein World by being contrite instead of defiant, issuing a public apology and terminating production of the offending labels.

Many asked, “Wasn’t anyone paying attention before printing the labels?” The Wall Street Journal reports that the tagline passed through five levels of review including ad agency BBDO, multiple corporate departments at parent company AB InBev, and the U.S. Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

In the end… will the backlash hurt Protein World and Bud Light? Protein World recorded a sales jump amid the news coverage. Bud Light saw its “buzz” score drop, clouding its summer sales season to be kicked off by a “Whatever, USA” event on Catalina Island, California. Revenue and regulation will be the ultimate determinants, with bad PR known to affect both negatively.

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ISIS and the Media War

The Brookings Institute has published “The ISIS Twitter census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter.”  Key findings include:

  • At least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters
  • Typical ISIS supporters were located within the organization’s territories in Syria and Iraq, as well as in regions contested by ISIS.
  • ISIS-supporting accounts had an average of about 1,000 followers each, considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user.

As a hostile regime, ISIS (also known as Islamic State or ISIL) has mastered contemporary media in a manner unequaled since Nazi Germany’s Ministry of Propaganda. During my graduate studies in 2010, I wrote in a discussion forum:

The Nazis made communication a key component of seizing and holding power. Censorship and propaganda worked together to suppress contrary communication while amplifying the Nazi agenda. The Nazis burned books and killed/incarcerated/chased off “undesirables” while Third Reich communicators such as Goebbels, Riefenstahl, and Speer immortalized the Nazi message in word, symbol, radio wave, film, stone and flesh (the Nuremberg rallies). Communication and power are intertwined. Hitler knew it from the time he scrawled Mein Kampf in the 1920s.

In a public relations course I taught in 2014 at Golden Gate University, I cited a New York Times article reporting ISIS’ “deft command of varied media,” echoing Nazi efforts. The terrorist movement blankets social media and produces Hollywood-quality videos promoting its ideologies and glorifying its atrocities including beheading and immolating captives. This user-generated content ensnares a huge global audience, multiplied by traditional media coverage of the missives.

In a 2004 article I wrote for AdWeek, I proposed a United States Department of Communications to unify and direct strategy and tactics that would foster “America’s perseverance in a wired, media-intensive world.” In the ensuing decade, social media have grown exponentially, giving our enemies vast opportunity to wage and win the media war. Per Richard A. Stengel, America’s under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, “the efforts to counter ISIS could have been better coordinated.”

The Obama administration plans its media counteroffensive through expansion of an office created in 2011, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. Per The New York Times, critics claim the office has lacked support and funding. “We’re getting beaten on volume, so the only way to compete is by aggregating, curating and amplifying existing content,” said Under Secretary Stengel as the media war with ISIS has intensified.

Social media propelled the 2011 Arab Spring which led to regime change in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. It is now an accelerant in ISIS’ quest to recruit supporters, seize territory, and cow opponents. Terrorists foment asymmetrical warfare, taking on much larger and more capable foes. Ironically, the asymmetry in today’s media war shows the terrorists as the superior combatant.

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Microsoft and the Cash Cows

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella introduces the new version of the company’s signature product, Windows 10.

Microsoft has announced that its new Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for a wide range of current Windows users. This accompanies the company’s similar offers of free Microsoft Office apps for users of iOS and Android systems.

Windows is Microsoft’s signature product, the operating system that at one time ran the vast majority of personal computing devices, propelling Microsoft to a market dominance that the federal government sought to curtail with an antitrust action in the 1990s. MS Office featuring Word, Excel and PowerPoint has been the leading productivity suite for years as Microsoft overwhelmed early leaders such as WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. The Microsoft divisions responsible for Windows and its productivity software have historically earned the bulk of the company’s profit“cash cows” per the BCG Matrix.

So why give these products away in 2015? Is this a case of killing the cash cows (akin to liquidating the goose that laid the golden egg)?

The rationale becomes clearer with an examination of the BCG Matrix. This analysis method divides areas of a business into four categories:

  • Stars: Business units or products with high growth rate and high market share. They typically require heavy investment (e.g., extensive marketing campaigns) as they increase share and solidify their success.
  • Cash Cows: Market leaders with low growth rates that produce consistent income without heavy investment. They generate the money required to finance the company’s other endeavors.
  • Question Marks: High growth rate but low market share. They consume cash while the company determines if they are turning into stars.
  • Dogs: Low growth and low share. The name says it all.

The BCG Matrix

Microsoft has treated Windows and Office as stars instead of cash cows, failing to develop true stars to stimulate or at least harness changes in consumer trends. Its best attempt to branch out has been its gaming division, dominant in its market but a frequent money-loser.

The company acted oblivious to the shift to mobile computing. In 2007, it released the disastrous, bloated Windows Vista while Apple launched the iPhone. Its belated attempt to assert itself in the mobile space, Windows 8, was also derided as clunky and blamed for accelerating the downturn in PC sales, the very product that Microsoft was trying to support with its “dual” operating system approach.

Sales of Windows have continued to decline with the drop in PC sales. Office no longer enjoys unquestioned ubiquity as consumers have found substitute products that are cheaper or even free, such as Google Docs. CEO Steve Ballmer stepped down as Microsoft was increasingly deemed a has-been, its revenue currently one-third of Apple’s.

Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, has promised a turnaround. Microsoft’s cloud computing services and mobile devices are increasing in sales. The Windows and Office giveaways are designed to keep people using Microsoft products while introducing them to the company’s latest offerings. They may be free for many consumers now, but Windows and Office are finally being used like true cash cows, supporting Microsoft’s direction for the future.

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