There are so many ways that ads can go wrong. They can disdain review and seemingly set out to shock in the ugliest ways. A company can ignore lessons from others and find themselves taken by surprise. Or utter surprise can sink a marketing campaign with no mercy.
Consider an ad from 10 years ago for Folger's coffee, a brand owned by the J.M. Smucker Company. It was a coming-home Christmas story--just back from working with a volunteer group in West Africa, a young man enters a house, sees a sister who has grown up during his absence, and they share a cup of coffee while he gives her a gift and she take a bow, sticks it on him, says, "You're my present this year," and then the parents appear.
Cute. Except, apparently a lot of people read this as having incestuous undertones, according to the GQ article about it. Author Gabriella Paiella looks at what has grown up to be an entire mythos twisted enough to be worthy of Greek mythology of the most twisted kind.
The people originally involved with creating the ad, interviewed for the article, swear up and down that everything was supposed to be wholesome. That the people involved were basically sweet and straightforward. Actor Timothy Simons--now known for his acting work on Veep but then a newcomer who was the cameraman for auditions--said, "It's not something I have a lot of memories about, outside of the fact that ultimately the commercial kind of seems like the brother and sister are going to have sex."
What a peculiar situation. But many people say that there's an underlying vibe to it that screams of a relationship beyond what you might have wanted. That the age difference was too small between the two on screen and that a much younger sister might have been a wise move in hindsight.
If only. Once the door is open, even if only through perception, the forces of mayhem are up and running. One writer's 2012 Twitter quip that "Nothing gets me in the holiday mood like that incest/Folgers commercial" ultimately landed on Tumblr with, to date, 221,992 responses. There is parody fiction about it. There is even an "extra-awkward recut of an already awkward instant classic" on YouTube:
And another one, only with Comedy Central extending the entire thing with other actors and an even more twisted execution.
You know how people tell you that it gets better? Sometimes, it just gets worse.
How does a company deal with something like this? I reached out to J.M. Smucker but haven't heard back yet. So, maybe one approach is to just ignore it, like a bad nightmare that keeps recurring.
Clearly there's nothing you could do after the fact. Just soldier on. Ideally, you catch this early in the process. It's like so many problems in marketing. You need to present material to diverse reviewers, asking them to be critical and point out the absolute worst they can conjure.
Few companies seem to do it effectively. And how many will have added "perverts" to their list of qualified experts.
At times like that, grab another cup of coffee because you will need to pull the campaign and deliver a replacement faster than Santa moves through a chimney. Here's hoping that your coming marketing year doesn't face such surprises.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled the surname of Gabriella Paiella.