Case of the Misfired Message

Copywriting that backfires

Have you ever written copy that was taken wrong or misunderstood by your readers? You might be kicking yourself but you’re actually in good company. You can learn from marketing misfires made by big companies, sometimes with negative PR effects.

Example 1: “The Sad Grandpa”

This video was made by a German supermarket to generate warm and fuzzy emotions, not specifically to promote the store. You’ve probably seen the story. Sad old grandfather is alone on Christmas, with sons and daughters scattered and too busy to come home. He sends them a message to tell them he’s dying. They all come home, feeling sad and guilty, and end up with a cheerful, well-cooked Christmas dinner.

This video went viral. Many people responded to the idea of being alone on Christmas, especially for an old person.

But not all viewers responded positively. Some found the video depressing for the season. Worse, not everyone got the message, “Remember your parents. They won’t be around.”

Some got a different message: “This man was being manipulative.” And, they added, family get-togethers shouldn’t be based on manipulation.

One way to see the message clearly: Imagine the characters changed. Suppose a young woman with a baby hadn’t heard from her family. She sends text messages to say the baby died.

Example 2: Selling the puppy

Google created a video, presumably to increase recognition of their name and communicate their website building service. The video showed a lost dog finding its way home. As the dog arrives, the owners say, “We’re glad to see you so we can sell you on our Google website!”

This video apparently was intended to be humorous. That intention seems plausible. Many dog owners have joking said to their dogs, “If you don’t behave I’ll …” Meanwhile their dogs happily continue napping and taking treats, knowing they’re not going anywhere.

But many viewers didn’t catch the humor. The video communicated, “You can sell anything on our websites, even if it’s morally questionable.” Viewers protested so strongly that Google apologized and withdrew the ad.

Again, imagine the characters changing. “You can sell anything on our websites, even your clothes.” That would have been appropriate.
But try, “You can sell anything on our website, even the family silver.” Or, “You can sell anything, even your children.” Uh oh.

Example 3: AARP on “Age discriminaton?”

AARP recently put together an ad where millennials were asked what age was considered “old.” First they were asked how “old” people crossed a street and texted a message. They then were introduced to some very fit people ranging in age from 60 to 70. They then taught each other an exercise, such as a dance move or a yoga pose.

At the end of the video the young people were asked, “Now how old is old?” This time the millennials answered “80,” “90” or “100.”

The video presumably wanted to refute stereotypes and suggest the old saw, “Age is just a number.” Unfortunately the video communicated a message AARP might not have intended: “Old is bad.” The video shows that these young people learned to the delay of the labeling by a few decades, but the negative labels were still there. It also communicated that youth is defined by one’s ability to do jumping jacks and dance moves.

This misfire was caused by a script that detoured from its purpose. Most likely the agency failed to get feedback before filming.

A better message would be, “Age is irrelevant and we don’t need the word ‘old.’” And the issue isn’t about what millennials think but about how people over ages as young as 50 are treated in the workplace and society in general.

If I were developing this campaign, I’d get a series of head shots from celebrities over 65 and add a short caption.

For example:

George Westhead, basketball coach. At age 68 he coached the WNBA Phoenix Mercury to a league championship. But a sales manager his age couldn’t get a managerial position in most corporations. THey’d say, “He can’t work with young people and he can’t take the pressure.”

Joan Rivers, entertainer. At age 75 she won the grueling Celebrity Apprentice program, working late nights with breaks to do stand-up comedy gigs. At one point she pretended to be a hotel concierge. A 75-year-old woman who applied for a hotel concierge position would be turned down, saying, “You don’t have the energy and the stamina.”

Bernie Sanders, presidential candidate. At 74 he was campaigning hard to be president, traveling and dealing with tough crowds. If a 74-year-old applied for a job as a bank manager, he’d be turned down because “you’re not current in your field and you wouldn’t keep up.”

And then add a tag line: “It’s not the age. It’s the person.”

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