Marketing Blunders, Part 4: Think Before You Act

The year is 2006. On the streets of Spain, a woman slows down on her scooter and hands a passing man a card with a phone number on it. The lucky recipient pockets the card, thrilled. 

Much to his surprise, when he calls, he discovers that the phone number goes to a customer representative at a Vespa scooter dealership. The woman was an actor, and the whole encounter was a marketing ploy. 

And this “marketing technique” repeated itself all over Spain, leading to some very disgruntled Spaniards.


The Bait-and-Switch

This marketing campaign was actually used in 2006. Models were hired to ride around on Vespa scooters, hang out with men, and give out “their” numbers. 

Unsurprisingly, the number of phone calls to their dealership skyrocketed! 

So the marketing technique was a success, right? Or was it?

Sure, it’s a clever trick. But so what? The consumer isn’t handing out awards. He’s a buyer, and when he finds out that he’s been swindled he won’t be amused — just angry.

Eye-catching marketing techniques like the bait-and-switch may seem effective, and other marketing professionals may even appreciate their creativity. But you’re not trying to woo marketing experts; you’re trying to secure new customers. The bottom line: Think about your customer’s perspective, not your own.

The Love Letter

If you think Vespa’s marketing campaign was strange, compare it to one launched by Italian carmaker Fiat back in 1994. They sent 50,000 anonymous love letters to women in Spain, leaving no indication that they were from a car dealership. Instead, they looked like they were from a “secret admirer” (or possibly a stalker).

Some women became nervous to leave their homes. One asked for relatives to escort her on errands for her own safety.

Recipients of the letters had to wait a full four days before they received a second letter with a “Fiat” signature and an attached brochure.

That probably calmed down many of the women who received the letters. But not enough: Several of the women slammed Fiat with a lawsuit. While the financial impact of the lawsuit was minimal (Fiat paid 155,000 Spanish pesetas, or about 1,100 USD), the damage to the company’s reputation was significant.

Where did the company go wrong? Sure, their concept was unique. It got everyone’s attention. Shockingly, they had even received positive results when they ran a pilot test. But just like Vespa, they failed to think about how the campaign would feel to the consumer.

Fear Tactics

One way that companies often make this mistake is through the use of fear tactics. While marketing can be used to motivate consumers to take action, and an ad that conveys a strong emotion can help with this, taking advantage of the emotion of fear may be perceived as in bad taste.

For example, a 2000 Nike Super Bowl commercial featured a female runner outrunning a chainsaw-wielding murderer.

While those at Nike’s annual shareholder meeting found the horror movie spoof to be humorous, many others vehemently disagreed. It was pulled off the air after NBC received thousands of disgusted phone calls and emails about the ad.

The Overpromise

In a different vein, sometimes a company can underestimate their consumer base.

For example, in 1992, Hoover ran a promotion that led to an extremely costly resolution. The company put out what seemed like an incredible deal, offering two complimentary round-trip tickets from the UK to the US (valued at about £600), to any consumer that bought at least £100 of Hoover products. They were assuming that many purchases would be far more than £100, and that most customers would be deterred by the extremely complex application process or would accidentally fail to meet all of the numerous terms to qualify.

To the company’s dismay, many customers took full advantage of the deal, buying the stated minimum of £100 of Hoover products purely in order to receive the flights. In fact, many customers viewed the deal as two round-trip tickets for £100, with a vacuum cleaner thrown in for free. When the company realized that it would never be able to finance all of the promised tickets, it reneged on the deal and canceled the promotion, prompting legal action from the intended recipients. The backlash of the scandal led to the sale of the European branch of Hoover to a competitor.

What do these marketing blunders have to do with your own company’s marketing? It can be easy to get swept up in an advertising campaign that seems incredibly creative, fully unique, and bound to catch the attention of your consumer base. But it’s important to stop and think about what the campaign will look like through the consumers’ eyes. Will they find it creepy? Terrifying? Patronizing? Offensive? Watch out, or it might backfire and become the world’s newest marketing blunder.

This article is part of the Marketing Blunders series. These articles discuss common marketing fiascos and how to avoid them. See all the articles in the series here.