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Hurricanes have a way of getting your attention. Being part of the Mid-Atlantic path of Sandy has made me aware of many things out of the normal course of daily business. Storms of all sorts are increasingly opportunities for local news stations to push weather expertise and project themselves as round-the-clock regional communications centers. The result is typically a lot of supermarkets benefiting from bread and milk sales and a lot of snow shovels and sidewalk salt sold at Lowes and Home Depot.

Erie Insurance and State Farm took to the air pre-Sandy promoting emergency preparedness.

Erie Insurance and State Farm took to the air pre-Sandy promoting emergency preparedness.

However, the potential for serious flooding, property damage, and power outages with Hurricane Sandy over such a wide path of the Eastern seaboard has upped the ante in many directions. Yesterday, a number of smart retailers like Wal-Mart and Office Depot had moved essentials to the front of their stores, including bottled water, flashlights, batteries, etc. Perhaps the only exception — portable generators are still tough to be had at a time like this.

Especially surprising were some smart radio commercials yesterday by two different major property/casualty insurance giants — State Farm and Erie Insurance. Both spots were direct, full of good preparatory advice, and reassurance that they would be there for policyholders. That is a solid message for corporations to send ahead of what will be a costly quarter for them as they help customers settle claims post hurricane. The media buy was expensive, but likely more than offset by the new customers they will gain from competitive property/casualty insurers who don’t treat their insureds well in the days ahead.

Travelers sent a safety email to customers in advance of Sandy.

Travelers sent a safety email to customers in advance of Sandy.

I wondered about my own company, Travelers, but found a similar message emailed to me, along with important details on storm preparedness and claim follow-up. This is a terrific use of a Customer Relationship Marketing database, and while it may seem like a no-brainer, it requires advance planning on the part of the insurance company’s marketing department, along with coordination with all the departments within the company to ensure accuracy of information.

One of the biggest concerns related to Sandy appears to be about loss of electricity from downed trees taking down transmission lines and water affecting the power grid. I had one unexpected level of assurance from my friend Steven Brush posting to Facebook on Sunday — he snapped a smartphone picture of electrical crew trucks traveling north from Alabama via I-95. Now, that’s emergency preparedness and much appreciated out-of-state assistance even before it is officially needed.

Power crews from Alabama already headed north in advance of Sandy.

Power crews from Alabama already headed north in advance of Sandy.

In the information age, all of us are getting better prepared to handle whatever nature throws our way, certainly following painful lessons learned during Katrina. And government, utilities, media, non-profit relief agencies, and businesses are getting smarter in helping citizens weather these storms.

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Some stories are just too good not to follow and share. This one has two parts. The first is about badvertising — a creative concept that should have been killed by the agency before it ever reached the client. The second is about social media being wildly unpredictable and entertaining.

When ad and social media campaigns go bad.

When ad and social media campaigns go bad.

Adweek’s Ad Freak does an admirable job of presenting both accounts, going so far as to question whether the first one is worst campaign of the year. The badvertising is for the product of a new start-up company called Energy Sheets. You probably remember a similar product —breath freshening strips that you drop on your tongue. The effect is a hit of super-concentrated mouthwash triggered as the strip instantly dissolves. Presumably, Energy Sheets delivers the equivalent of a 5-hour energy shot via a similar quick hit. Incredibly, LeBron James is a key investor.

The entire campaign relies upon a dumb double entendre, “I Take A Sheet In The ______,” to include the pool (Caddyshack flashback anyone?), the library, and in an ad featuring the hot rapper Pitbull, on the stage. Even if you appreciate bathroom humor, as Adweek notes, do you want to promote a product that you put in your mouth with a headline that “references defecation?”  Can’t wait for the “Who gives a sheet?” gift cards.

On such dubious footing, it makes perfect sense that Energy Sheets would work with retailers like Wal-Mart to leverage the popularity of Pitbull via a social-media based contest. Like your favorite Wal-Mart store on Facebook and win a visit to that store by Pitbull. Sounds okay in theory, but the wild world of social media always has room for the unpredictable and unexpected. Enter one David Thorpe, a writer for the Boston Phoenix, who decided to have a little fun. He and a friend researched the most remote Wal-Mart store in the chain store’s chain and launched their own social media campaign to send Pitbull to Kodiak, Alaska, reachable only by plane or ferry. Already at 60,000 likes and climbing fast, the Kodiak Wal-Mart is looking more and more like the destination for Pitbull, who calls himself Mr. Worldwide. If that happens, Pitbull will have to reorient himself from hot, steamy Latin rhythm dance clubs to arctic landscapes. However, in the process, he may be able to finally answer the question, “Does a polar bear sheet in the woods?”

Update: Wal-Mart has a winner. Looks like Pitbull had better start packing his parka and lined boots for Kodiak, AK. As they used to say in the old Shake and Bake commercials, “And I helped.”

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Latest Facebook movement is on behalf of kids with cancer.

Latest Facebook movement is on behalf of kids with cancer.

As 2012 starts, we are suffering from a dearth of leadership, and the larger the institution or company, the more likely that no one wants to step up and steer the ship. Latest example is Mattel, which has a social media storm developing outside its corporate walls and it is over something that could be turned into such a positive for all and on all levels. If you haven’t heard about the Beautiful and Bald Barbie Facebook page/group, here is a good primer on it. Essentially, someone came up with a brilliantly simple idea to support little girls going through cancer care and attendant hair loss (as well as those whose mothers are) — a Barbie, the universal doll symbol of beauty, minus all her signature golden locks. With every other possible celebrity and situational version of Barbie, it is amazing that Mattel did not think of this themselves, and therein lies the problem. So far, the official response to this Facebook movement is that official corporate policy is to not accept ideas from outside.

I suppose Mattel is grappling with a lot of legal questions as to who owns this idea and how are they compensated on future sales. Incredibly, this story adds another layer — that early last year Mattel custom-produced a bald Barbie for a single little girl undergoing chemo. So, there is even precedence here.

I have a unique perspective on this, being from the PR industry, and having had a child successfully treated for leukemia. A children’s onco ward can be a scary, lonely place and little gestures of caring and kindness go a long way. How can Mattel be so tone deaf — kids with cancer and a chance to do something socially redemptive — it seems like the easiest corporate green light ever.  Where is the downside?

No response to Bald Barbie movement on any Barbie or Mattel pages.

No response to Bald Barbie movement on any Barbie or Mattel pages.

Instead, with the Beautiful and Bald Barbie Facebook page now approaching 100,000 likes, and a lot of negative comments posted about Mattel, the official Mattel and Barbie Facebook pages, apps, and web site pages do not have any responses to this movement. However, you will find this bit of mission statement gobbledygook:

“”Leadership” at Mattel is the ability to develop and communicate a compelling picture of the future that inspires and motivates others to take action. Leaders at Mattel align themselves with Mattel’s core values, exhibit leadership competencies and drive for success in our business strategies. In this way, we will work to achieve our vision, “Creating the Future of Play.” Every day as Mattel’s 30,000 employees worldwide strive to realize that vision, our leadership team is guiding the way.”

Someone on this page at Mattel needs to stop talking about leadership, throw policy manuals out the window, and actually lead.  It’s the smart thing to do, the right thing to do, and the ONLY thing to do.

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Olive Garden has a social media firestorm on its hands.

Olive Garden has a social media firestorm on its hands.

Hell hath no fury like an 80-year-old Kiwanis Club member denied the chance to proudly display the American flag during the Club’s meeting/meal. Just ask the Olive Garden restaurant chain, which is learning unexpected lessons in handling crisis PR and social media wildfires following the incident and subsequent flare-up. Here is a link to one of the original news accounts, which took place at an Alabama location of the restaurant chain, not exactly the heart of PC policy USA.

Once this news hit the local news, it became a sound bite headline that spread nationally to places like the Drudge Report. By the time I saw the story, the Comments section on the page was loaded with angry posters, many of them Facebook commenters, who had already decided they were done eating another meal at ANY Olive Garden. What struck me was the explosion of the myth that social media, is wholly owned and operated by Generation Y. This is not your son’s (or grandson’s) Facebook network anymore. There are Hank Williams Jr. lookalikes looking like they just got the opportunity to defiantly stick it to ESPN. There are grandmothers forming a solidarity movement with the Kiwanis Club lady. The common theme was that an American corporation had knowingly decided to tread on Old Glory (or at least banish it from their premises) and each poster was weighing in as a former customer (with plans to virally make family and friends former customers as well). Ouch. Some posters noted that Olive Garden is part of a larger restaurant group and they named the other affiliated restaurant chains. The potential for business damage here remains huge.

Many Olive Garden customers are angry over the flag incident.

Many Olive Garden customers are angry over the flag incident.

At this point, I visited the Olive Garden Facebook page and corporate’s web site home page. Both contained the following explanation/apology intended to contain the damage and assure customers that this was not corporate policy and it truly was an isolated, unfortunate incident brought about by one manager or staffer acting in the absence of policy.

Official Olive Garden response to the "flag" incident.

Official Olive Garden response to the "flag" incident.

The following day, Olive Garden announced to the news media that the CEO would be personally apologizing to the Kiwanis lady. Given the heat and the fury out there, I suspect neither of these steps individually or together will be enough to undo the damage.

Lots of "tweets" about Olive Garden after the "flag" incident, too.

Lots of "tweets" about Olive Garden after the "flag" incident, too.

I predict that Olive Gardens will have to start couponing deals like crazy to win back lost customers and flying a flag twice the size of the ones at Perkins Pancake Houses outside all locations. This isn’t a case of isolated anecdotes about bad service or a cold meal. It is much more visceral and hits at the heart of American culture and patriotism. It isn’t clear what the decision-maker at the Alabama Olive Garden was thinking, but the default corporate answer to most such “special” requests these days is “No.” Sometimes the perpetual worry about offending “someone” clouds your ability to see you might wind up offending “nearly everyone.”

Does anyone still doubt the power of social media, especially when triggered by news media? Does anyone want to bet against civics lessons being added to corporate managerial training at every restaurant chain and retailer in America after this?

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Conan turns to blimps and digital and tv to build his brand.

Conan turns to blimps and digital and tv to build his brand.

No wonder advertisers get confused about how to allocate media dollars. It is an absolute free-for-all. A day does not go by without another news item suggesting how one medium or platform is overtaking or supplanting another. I routinely remind myself of the progression that TV did not kill radio when it came on the scene, and likewise, the Internet did not replace TV. Every form of media is still in active use (papyrus scrolls and carrier pigeons excepted). I see latest Conan TV ads feature blimp advertising blended with mobile platforms. As a big fan of Team Coco, I am hoping for Goodyear associations, not Hindenberg.

A quick sampling of recent stories should give everyone pause about claiming superiority over another medium or about writing a competing medium’s obituary.

This intriguing story from Advertising Age suggests Facebook is voraciously eating the lunch of major magazine brands. It left me scratching my head about how Burberry, frozen in my own brain as a conservative British purveyor of fine raincoats, has attracted over 8 million followers on Facebook. I visited their pages and came away still scratching my head. This Google search revealed a few clues — fashion launches via Facebook and iPads, free samples of a new fragrance, interactive videos, and easy-to-follow followers like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Still, that is a staggering number of followers, but more power to them. Whatever Burberry is doing, it’s working.

Next up, two stories from Digiday. One reveals how Google is preparing a full frontal assault on newspapers’ biggest cash cow — Sunday circulars. Imagine a digital version of a circular that gives a retailer all kinds of local control to customize content by store, pricing, and product category. Also from Digiday is a rather depressing, confusing  picture of the landscape of digital advertising tech companies. The bar is low for entrants. The result is a mixed bag of options and results for advertisers. Not sure who is being served by this.

This week, New York magazine devotes an extended article to Twitter and whether it is becoming too big for its 140-character britches, er tweets.

If you’re not completely boggled yet, here is video reporting by the print-based Wall Street Journal delivered online from their web site to explain how tv ad spending can be rising as viewership is dropping. Got that?

My next media recommendation? Burma-shave style billboards but delivered with a twist — constantly changing messaging on a series of digital billboards. The product? Attention-deficit disorder drugs.

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This week’s post theme song is brought to you by Wilco. Also, two pretty well-known companies named Facebook and Burson-Marsteller.  You may not be familiar with the latter, but it happens to be one of the biggest and most respected firms in the PR field. While online privacy continues to be a hot button issue, incredibly Facebook used the matter as a cudgel to whack rival Google over social media turf wars. Burson-Marsteller allowed itself to be used as the messenger to plant the story via a tech blog without revealing who had hired them. What’s worse, the charge appears to be about activities Facebook was engaged in themselves.

There are plenty of accounts like this one about the nefarious deed and most of them read like inside baseball about the way Facebook and Google manage/leverage the privacy of their zillions of users. Increasingly, it is clear there are two eight hundred pound gorillas in the digital world and they don’t like sharing with each other. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s scooping up of Skype looks like an act of attention-grabbing desperation. More examples of mega corporations growing fat and stupid and ceasing to care about their many users. Where is the focus on innovation, new products, and exclusive benefits?

Anyone who has watched The Social Network should not be surprised that brilliant Mark Zuckerberg can also be vengeful Mark Zuckerberg. The aspect of this story that is most troubling to me, however, is Burson-Marsteller’s monumental lapse in judgment.

PR firms are trusted counselors and when they start acting like minions scurrying to do the bidding of Dr. Evil, it is time for self-flagellation. Public relations is all about taking positive messages to the market place, or when there are genuine problems, helping clients put the bad news in the best possible light (spin control if you will).  When a client asked you to anonymously badmouth a competitor, all the internal alarm bells should go off at once.

A few days ago, I came across this devastating piece of satire about my profession in ultimate humor site, The Onion —

“PR Firm Kills Innocent Child

‘Kills is a Harsh Word,’ Spokesperson Says.”

I thought it a little over the top that The Onion considered it not a stretch for public relations execs to murder a child in the park, then mount an upbeat campaign to downplay the crime. That was a few days ago. Ouch!

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Before the Internet, before Facebook, before smartphones, local advertisers concentrated their ad budgets on TV and at least some of them felt they needed to work very hard to get noticed. Faux (or forced) insanity was the order of the day. The king of this method of advertising was Crazy Eddie, the NY metro area consumer electronics retail chain, that brought a heightened sense of urgency to take advantage of sale prices (and of Eddie himself) to everyone’s living room.

Not sure why the yelling announcer model became so popular, but it was employed by car dealers, restaurateurs, the Atco Speedway, and at least one local merchant in every city. In Philadelphia, Ben Krass made himself a hometown celebrity selling his Krass Brothers suits surrounded by a harem, usually in bikinis.  All of these “mad men” wanted to ensure that viewers didn’t miss their schtick by heading to the bathroom during program breaks.

It’s likely even then that mental illness advocacy groups lodged complaints about turning affliction into an attention grab. Most viewers, however, just found the spots obnoxious. Still, they did their job, created awareness and buzz for these businesses, and moved a lot of product.

Today, local advertisers would have to be truly loco to pass up the amazing range of online options for geo-targeting and reaching prospects and customers. They could save their vocal cords and save a lot of marketing budget dollars in the process. The array is dizzying. Local is the new focus of Google, which has hired local salespeople and repurposed its Local Business Center as Google Places. Businesses know that with so many spending so much time on Facebook, they need to be there with pages and ads. Yelp and Foursquare were ahead of the curve on helping advertisers build local followings. Groupon, Living Social, and in Philly Metro, Dealyo have bought couponing and promotions into the digital age. Then, with Microsoft Tags and QR Codes, retailers can build their own brick-and-click campaigns to generate sales with smartphone users.

Next week’s blog post is devoted to yet another local program/platform called Matchbin that gives local businesses a wide range of ways to connect with customers. So many choices for those looking for asylum from the crazy method of advertising.

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With all the turbulent changes the advertising industry has undergone in recent years, one constant has been a welcome distraction — the hilarious, note-perfect commercial parodies that Saturday Night Live churns out every show and every season. SNL has undergone its own annual turbulence of cast changes, topical content challenges, and guest host chemistry issues. Yet every season, a different cast produces a number of gems that tweak real commercials or use the prism and familiar formats of advertising to tackle current news stories.

NBC has produced entire specials of these special thirty-second clips and now has an amazing archive of this rich comic material. Breakfast cereals are popular subjects. From John Belushi’s unlikely Olympic athlete powered, not by Wheaties, but “Little Chocolate Donuts.” To the fiber-over-rich, can-you-match-the number-of-bowls laxative power of  “Colon Blow.” But there are so many others, from the all-clay, moldable Adobe car that repairs itself, to the Change Bank that addresses all our needs of exact coinage, to Wade Blasingame, the attorney who will sue dogs.

This season, two spots have done an amazing job of capturing the Zeitgeist. One is all about the pleasures and dangers of social media and its expansion beyond the college campus.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZSIrzFsnlQ

The other combines the allure of those late night chat line come-on spots with the need to diffuse the anger over ever-more intrusive airport security screening procedures.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIan6woglrA

The next time someone wonders whether advertising is still relevant in the digital age, tell them not to taunt Happy Fun Ball. Then, hit them with a Nerf Crotchbat.

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