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Big Promotions.net, Advertising Specialties, Dallas, TX

Shining Examples Of Promotions Gone Wrong

by Susan Morgan on May 21, 2009

It’s always amusing to point out epic failures… the ones that everyone sees and shares –  especially if these are the brainchild of well heeled corporations or uber-cool ad agencies who should know better, who’d be glad to tell all of us they DO know better except for the clear cut evidence we now have to the contrary. Call it gloating if you want… but sharing stories like these brings a smile to my face and a spring to my step.

In fact, within the last few weeks we’ve been provided with two remarkably good examples of promotional failure that hurt the brand they were supposed to be helping – leaving a hard to overcome hurdle for the products moving forward. To find a promotional campaign that is succeeding rather well, we need look back to the beginning of 2009, though the campaign is in it’s next phase now.

Let’s begin with the mis-steps… the most dangerous of these detailed in the recent story of a Pepsi April 2009 promotion that advertised a give away of 250 pairs of tickets for the opening day game at the New York Yankees new stadium. Since ticket prices make a game out of reach financially for almost any regular fan, this promotion caught on. New Yorkers (testy on a good day) came out in droves, lining up hours in advance for a chance at a pair of tickets for opening day. 

Only Pepsi didn’t have the right permits to give out the tickets, changed the giveaway location at the last minute forcing a mass stampede to the new spot, had promised more pairs of tickets than they actually had… and, worst of all, the tickets were for a game in JUNE, not opening day as many had been lead to believe. 

Police were called when the crowd began shouting “Pepsi sucks… Pepsi sucks!” and dumping the soda in the street. Then the news got hold of the story, and bloggers (like me) won’t let it die. In the end the brand suffered… not a crushing blow certainly, but a needless one. The whole episode hardly inspires confidence.

Take Home Lesson: Always plan any promotion with care… proper permits, straightforward messaging, being sure everyone knows their role. It doesn’t hurt to have some contingency plans in mind in case something goes wrong.

Not to be outdone, consider the recent endorsement by Oprah of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s (sorry, I mean KFC’s) new menu offering – grilled chicken. It seems that Oprah, in a misguided effort to lend a helping hand in times of economic stress, offered a downloadable coupon (good from May 5 to May 19) for a free grilled chicken meal, during a recent broadcast of her show – the show seen daily by an audience estimated at 10 million. Lines formed, parking lots filled… and everyone waited, while hapless KFC franchise owners, who’d reportedly been given little notice, tried to keep up. A good number refused to honor the coupons at all.

Riots, verbal abuse and an almost total breakdown of KFC’s supply chain were the result. The expected number of meals to be given away free at each KFC jumped from 125 the day of the broadcast to almost 800 per day, per location afterward. This pace has been the same every day since. In case you’re keeping track… that’s 4.5 million meals… more than 9 million pieces of grilled chicken.

Overwhelmed, the stores ran out of everything from the chicken and sides to the containers. Caught squarely in its own promotional nightmare, KFC has since decided to mail customers coupons instead. You can get a raincheck by bringing your downloaded coupon to a store and filing out a form with your name and address – you’ll get the free meal coupon by regular mail. In the meantime, you can buy the new grilled chicken meal for $3.99 and get a drink for free.

The backlash against Oprah from vegetarians (not to mention anyone trying to eat healthy) and the animal rights crowd has been vocal and well deserved. The PETA “Person of the Year” has been called hypocrical for supporting an offer from KFC while running heart wrenching shows on factory farming and puppy mills not all that long ago.

Take Home Lesson: Communication of your offer to employees and suppliers is key to a unified, professional effort that achieves its ends. Big names (or local ones) come with baggage (now or possibly later) that might taint your brand … so choose your spokesperson carefully.

There are many other examples of giveaways gone wrong, here’s a list of five others that will have you shaking your head and wondering if those responsible are still employed by these companies. Sports fans will get a kick out of some ballpark promotions that have gone horribly, horribly wrong, be sure to amuse yourself with these here.

Now for the promotional effort, that while not giving away a tangible item, is nonetheless quite successful…  leaving people with a positive feeling toward the brand. T-Mobile took an average January morning at a Liverpool Street Station in London and turned it into an impromptu dance party where 400 people broke into a professionally choreographed dance to some pretty toe-tapping tunes. Known as The T-Mobile Dance… the dancers were given two instructions – remember the steps, invite someone nearby to join in. By the end of the  two-and-a-half minutes of the video, everyone in the crowd is on their feet, moving to the music.

The only reference to the phones is how people in the crowd are using them to take pictures or share the news of the event with friends. No price points… no plan restrictions… no sell at all. Just a feeling… and a rather good one at that.

The video, shot in January 2009, has been viewed over 11 million times on YouTube, and has seemingly has the same effect on those who watch it as it did on those who were there. Not only does it put a smile on your face, but it brings attention to the company’s tagline (“Life’s for Sharing”) in a unique and out of the ordinary way.

I’m not sure I’ll buy one of their phones next time… but I like them. They stand out to me now.

The innovative campaign has just moved to its next step… from dancing to sing alongs, the latest featuring singer Pink, 13,500 extras and a huge video screen with the words to Hey Jude and other classics displayed so everyone could see. The video was shot on April 30 in London’s Trafalgar Square and is now on the T-Mobile channel on YouTube (lifesforsharing). More sing alongs are expected.

If you’d rather your next promotion not be lumped with some of the more famous (or infamous) failures you’ve read about, check out this fantastic list of suggestions on giveaways, the work of Christa Hoyland. Aimed at restaurants, it has lots of great tips for any business… certainly some things to think about before you get started on your next business promotion or giveaway.

Susan Morgan on sabtwitterSusan Morgan on sabfacebook
Susan Morgan
Creative, passionate and detailed, Susan brings 25-plus years professional writing experience to a variety of projects — get-noticed direct mail pieces, full line print catalogs, eye-catching color brochures and totally original. search engine friendly company blogs, web pages and online articles.

A lifelong love of storytelling has also produced a full-length novel (Out of the Ordinary published by booklocker in 2007). Susan continues to indulge her passion for fiction with a growing number of short stories (one an award winner in 2004, another in 2008) and finalizing a second novel.

In her spare time Susan enjoys gardening, studying astrology and tarot, being with family and friends and keeping up with politics and current events.


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