Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Where Is The Disconnect?

Something seems to have gone seriously haywire in the American marketing community.

For the third time in the last six months, just in the Boston-area alone, we are reporting a story on our Web site about a promotional scheme that went awry, prompting the evacuation of a bank branch and strip mall in Ashland, Mass., -- including the daycare center there -- and an all-out response from the local HAZMAT team.

It seems the bank received a fax that appeared to be some kind of bomb threat -- a sheet of paper with badly-drawn bomb on it -- but there was nothing to it. (See story link for photo.)

According to the bank, "the fax was meant for Bank of America employees and was intended for internal purposes for an upcoming small business promotion."

They said the fax was sent "by a marketing group for a promotion to kick off a special offer from the bank. "

Well, whatever the reason, it was a really bad idea.

About a month ago, another marketing company draped small black knapsacks along a fence outside a Newton, Mass., high school, which also triggered a call to the bomb squad early one morning. It was a promotion for a new Web site aimed at teenagers.

In early February, another marketing ploy for a cable cartoon show drew nationwide attention when it triggered a city-wide alert in Boston. A marketing firm in New York hired two men to place Lite-Bright-like contraptions around the city, which some people, unfortunately, thought might be explosive devices. Again, the HAZMAT crews showed up in force and highways were shut down. The entire ruckus ended up costing Turner Broadcasting millions and the general manager of the Cartoon Network resigned.

Yet here we are again today, however, with yet another dumb marketing promotion gone bad. Who the heck are these marketing people anyway? And where were they on Sept. 11, 2001?

Are they all just 20-somethings starting out at their first firm who've grown up on a steady diet of "Jackass?" If so, maybe they're too young for 9-11 to have made an impression. But presumably their managers and supervisors are a little older, with enough sense to reject a bad publicity stunt in this post-9-11 world. Do any of them have any shred of social responsibility? Sure doesn't seem like it.

We're told these stunts are a form of "guerilla marketing" which, according to one of its gurus, is "an unconventional way of performing promotional activities on a very low budget." There are dozens of Web sites devoted to it, but the bottom line is, it's all about selling a product or service. The aim of going "unconventional," I assume, is to cut through the vast thicket of other more traditional ads and promotions. But can't we employ a little more intelligence here?

It seems apparent in many ways that American society has become creatively bankrupt. The most successful movies and plays all seem to be based on comic book heroes someone else dreamed up 50 years ago, and there hasn't been a "great American novel" written since ... when? Music? Well, what's the last truly original American sound you've heard? Rap? Hip Hop? Even that has gotten old. Even our hit TV shows ("American Idol," "The Office") are coming from Europe. Maybe the U.S. marketing industry has also run out of ideas. I'm trying to recall the last memorable commercial I've seen ... and I just can't.

Now, if someone came up with the next great marketing campaign, something truly original, that would surely get some attention. Until that happens though (and I won't be holding my breath) someone in charge needs to decide it's time to dispense with the "guerilla" approach. There's enough scary stuff happening out in the world that people don't need any more terror in their lives.

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