Apparel brand Diesel's new stunt promotion -- touted yesterday by its advertising agency --effectively says that there's nothing wrong with buying knock-offs of brand merchandise instead of the real item.
This is a new level of foolishness, even for the advertising business. Sure, there are smart promotions like those of KFC. But they seem outnumbered by mediocrity and even foolish campaigns. Some companies step into political mud holes or run the risk of being called racist.
This campaign was a doozy. Diesel and agencies Publicis North America and Publicis Italy opened a pop-up store on Canal Street in Manhattan. The shop was selling clothing with labels that read "Deisel," transposing the second and third letters. However, the merchandise was all made by Diesel as a "limited edition." Here's a video they shot.
When someone points out at the beginning that the name is spelled wrong, one of the actors at the store says, "It's close enough."
It's a peculiar message for any company in the fashion industry to offer. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the annual traffic in imported counterfeit goods is $461 billion. For years, companies have tried to fight counterfeiting for two reasons. First, they assume that the trade in fakes, if stopped, would mean more money for them, the real brands. Second, low prices undercut perceived brand value. Why should people pay hundreds for a Coach bag, for example, if they could get something close enough for a lot less?
Diesel and the agencies were having fun, and the video is amusing, but called the campaign, "Go with the flaw." The intended message was to "embrace imperfection," as AdAge put it.
There is at least one other interpretation: Go ahead and buy the fake, because the quality will be fine and who cares whether the name is spelled right? It's an outright endorsement of customers getting counterfeits to save money.
Communication is a difficult practice because all languages that people regularly use, whether verbal or visual, are to some degree ambiguous. You've probably had the experience of saying something that to you was clear, and yet which others interpreted differently. (If you need an example, go on to a social media platform, say anything vaguely political, and find out how slippery statements can be.)
A big part of the challenge in marketing is to find ways to construct a message so that the intended audience will perceive what you want them to. We're not talking about subterfuge or subliminal manipulation, just straight out "We said A and they didn't hear B." Get it wrong and you can anger customers.
The more complex the message, the greater the risk. Whether it's the McDonald's "dead dad" ad that ran in the U.K. or the notoriously tone deaf Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad, the results can blow up in your face.
The danger for Diesel is different. There is no consumer group that will perceive the message as an attack on its values and interests. Instead, the double entendre is that there's no problem in spending your money on some operator trying to take advantage of the brand value of a company. Diesel says that it doesn't mind being screwed. Hey, it's only money.
One of these days, someone's going to make a fortune out of offering a service in which promotions get vetted by an outside group that can tell companies when they're about to screw up royally.
Well, if marketing departments ever seem to care enough to avoid problems rather than apologize after the fact.