Note to brands using digital platforms – apply ‘humour’ with caution

Digital provides brands the opportunity to display their personality, but as Paddy Power’s Oscar Pistorius ad demonstrates, it’s easy to misjudge

The Advertising Standards Authority has ordered Paddy Power to withdraw their controversial Oscar Pistorius advert. Photograph: Paddy Power

Paddy Power’s controversial ad featuring Oscar Pistorius has brought with it a valuable lesson in digital communication and what can happen when things go wrong. I’m a long-term fan of the brand and I think more often than not when they’ve sought to push boundaries, they’ve nailed it. Certainly blending humour with topical events is a strategy that has worked well for them in the past. However, this campaign feels like a step too far. Marketing Week reported that speaking as the company announced its results for 2013, chief executive Paddy Kennedy rigorously defended the company’s approach stating that its stance was fully informed by “painstaking” marketing analytics and testing to ensure its “returns are maximised”.

Well, if the return you are looking for is for the Advertising Standards Authority to request you pull the campaign with immediate effect, it’s a job well done. But what interested me most was what Kennedy went on to say, claiming that the brand’s controversial style meant it was the “only brand in the sector which customers say has a real personality”.

Personality is the key reason that brands across all sectors have been so quick to embrace digital communications. It gives them a platform to bring to life their brand and create a “voice” for it in a way that other mediums find difficult to translate. Take, for example, Yorkshire Tea. It uses digital channels to convey a softer, down-to-earth tone of voice that you simply can’t convey on a billboard or TV ad. It engages consumers with the content it shares and encourages the community to get involved. Or Marmite, which plays on consumers’ love/hate relationship with it to create new style campaigns such as End Marmite Neglect. The communication works because it’s grounded in reality and brings an extra dimension to the brand.

Paddy Power might be looking to reach a different demographic, but there are other brands looking to engage a similar audience that have been successful, such as Heineken. The difference is that they’ve achieved this with tasteful humour, tongue firmly in cheek. You see the thing is that digital communications aren’t all that far removed from real life. Imagine you’re at a party and you meet someone really loud and offensive. You’re not going to engage them in polite chitchat. Most likely you’re going to walk away and never look back.

The same applies in digital. To build personality and engage consumers using digital communication channels there are some basic rules that brands need to adhere to. For example, be clear about what you’re looking to achieve, and ensure your personality translates well across multiple channels and that your campaign is integrated. But most of all be sure that the consumer is going to enjoy what you’re creating. Digital communication is about so much more than the number of likes or retweets you receive; it’s about long-term engagement. Real conversations. If you want to capture a consumer’s attention in this multi-screen, multi-device world you need a personality that they can relate to, want to invest time in and feel brings that little something extra. All qualities we’d associate with a good friend.

Used wisely, digital has the ability to reach huge audiences, create connections and change perceptions. All brands want their communications to create a reaction. But they want to create the right reaction, one that results in positive action from their user base. What’s the result when used in bad taste? Well we’ll have to wait and see. A quick glance at Paddy Power’s share price shows that it has actually increased, despite the outrage. Perhaps there really is no such thing as bad publicity after all.

Anton Jerges is the managing director of Collider


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