Friday, March 27, 2009

Recession Landmines Do Not Discriminate: Proceed With Extreme Caution

by Stephanie Fierman

A recession landmine is like a real landmine. It’s going to kill or maim whomever steps on it. The guilty, the innocent… it doesn’t matter. A landmine does not discriminate. You just explode.

And so it was with a recent Pepsi ad for G2 (low-calorie Gatorade).

When you watch the ad, you can see what Pepsi was trying to do almost immediately, then BLAM: it spins around like Linda Blair’s head and everyone’s covered in slime. This means Pepsi now have something in common with AIG, but more on later.

The shots move back and forth between NBA player Kevin Garnett and a normal, suburban-looking guy - also named Kevin – who loves to swim. The voiceover also switches back and forth between the two men, and herein lies the problem. In trying to write a Nike-reminiscent “athletic striving” ad, the supposedly inspiring statements appear to mock and insult people who have lost their jobs or are otherwise suffering due to the economic crisis. See for yourself (if you cannot already see the ad on your screen, click HERE).

When I first heard about this controversy, I’ll admit it: I really, really wanted to support Pepsi. Pepsi's a great brand. But this spot has issues.

The lines are being called "arrogant and insensitive" and a "cruel" "slap in the face":

Garnett: “I’ve never been handed a pink slip…” “I’ve never had to tell me wife ‘We can’t pay the mortgage.’” (Kevin “The Big Ticket” Garnett has a $24.75 million contract with the NBA)

Normal Kevin: “I’ve never had to fill the holes in my sneakers with cardboard.”

Garnett: “I’ve never used the backstroke as a ‘coping mechanism.’

And with these statements, my professional persona disappeared and I became a person who can’t pay for food, who doesn’t have health insurance, who has to drop out of school. The sneaker comment struck this trustmeister as particularly startling. Normal Kevin moves us swiftly down the road, past unemployment, with homelessness straight ahead.

How did Pepsi end up in this place? The financial services companies got into trouble for how they handled their (financial services) business. They made endemic mistakes, in their own backyards. This energy drink runs right into a buzz saw for no reason at all.

And so let us come back to how Pepsi now shares something with AIG. Both companies failed to grasp how people are feeling today… how “business as usual” no longer applies. 1.3 million children in the United States are homeless at some time every year - and that was before the recession started. One could assume that some of these children must use cardboard to fill the holes in their shoes.

If you think this is overly dramatic, we would respectfully suggest that you could step on the same landmine that Pepsi and the banks did, either while you’re on the job or chatting at a cocktail party. This is a sea of vast, vast pain.

Personally, I am counseling clients today to look hard at the need to advertise right now. If you are running ads, make sure they are seen and tested with a much broader swath of consumers and experts - people who may not be in your target audience. Put the ads through the mill. Have linguists and child advocates and food bank directors mull every word, every image.

Is all this fair? Fairness is not at play; raw nerve endings are. We are all in the business to sell, of course, but at what cost at this very moment? The news and current events are swinging wildly from one day to the next: are you comfortable deciding what messaging won't spark an undesirable (albeit inadvertent) reaction? Think long-term. If you’re not 100% secure in next week’s flight, cancel it. Because getting this wrong could negatively affect your brand’s reputation for years, if not a lifetime.


  1. Anonymous12:31 PM

    This kind of reminds me of the successful "Be like Mike", campaign of the early nineties. Except now instead they seem to be saying "You are so unlike Mike that the only thing you will ever hope to have in common is sports, and fruit punch."

  2. "I've never seen a homeless guy, drinking a Gatorade" - George Carlin

  3. When I saw the commercial I was angry and tearful. Being on the verge of homelessness, wearing shoes that are about to fall off, trying my best to cope, heck I'm the other Kevin. I found no inspiration while watching the adrenaline pumped larger than life person pull his shirt and howl in the air at his win. I was, however, reduced to tears at the stark reality of the "other Kevin." It's emotional impact was hard hitting. They didn't think this through very well at all. They separated the flock quite well and poured salt on already festering wounds. I do not like that commercial.

    Dear Marketing Officers
    Please do not remind us of how many homes are lost, how we struggle to cope, maintain and sustain ourselves then offer us a sports drink as an exaggerated price.
    the other Kevin