I've mentioned this before, but it still seems one of the defining moments in new-media marketing to me: when Greenpeace held a competition to name a whale and highlight the plight of these wonders of the deep, and the winning name was Mister Splashy Pants.
Greenpeace handled it well, rolled with the silliness and made the most of the publicity, but it was an indication of something we're seeing a lot of right now: the way the internet can mobilise the opinion of thousands of people who care about something - but don't necessarily care a lot. Those who would never write a letter or join a demo, but will happily forward an e-mail or click a voting button.
And that's having all sorts of interesting media effects. Look at John Sergeant and Strictly Come Dancing. The opinion magnifying effect of easy, mass participation re-veals the differences between what programme-makers think they're making and what viewers think they're watching. People are asked to vote for the best singer, dancer, cook or archaeologist, but what they actually vote for is the best television. They're using their votes to make drama, humour or controversy, not just playing the role designated to them by the television powers that be. And when they're ignored, they make a fuss; a record number of comments.
The pharmaceutical brand Motrin faced something slightly similar recently. A video on its website, which poked fun at more affected parenting styles, attracted the ire of some bloggers and twitterers who found it offensive. Being the voluble and connected people that they are, this ire was instantly magnified into a bonafide bad publicity storm, forcing the Motrin people to issue apologies and take down websites. And the general feeling in the marketing blogosphere is that Motrin blundered, both by not knowing its audience well enough and by being too slow and too mealy mouthed with its contrition. (If you want to know more, Rachel Clarke's written some great thoughts about both these events and the accompanying comment storms at www.icanhaz.com/strictly.)
But there might be a bigger lesson to learn. Which is that someone, somewhere is going to be offended by almost everything a brand or business does. And if every brand backs down from every comment storm, then we'll be left with an incredibly safe and sterile commercial media environment, offensive to no-one, but not interesting to anyone either.
Brands should be aware of, and prepared for, possible controversy, but also clear about what they actually believe. And if they think they're right, they should be prepared to say so. Because we all have a Mister Splashy Pants in our future and we need to know what to do with him when he arrives.
This article was first published on