Are brands scared of causing offence?

Lucky Generals' Andy Nairn, Toshiba's Matt McDowell, Life's Ian Humphris and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's Craig Mawdsley give their views on whether brands are scared.

As promotional gaffes go, the decision by Morrisons to project a baguette on to the wings of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North statue wouldn’t merit a mention among the all-time clangers. It certainly bears no comparison with Coca-Cola’s Dr Pepper brand, forced to abandon a Facebook promotion four years ago after it led to a girl of 14 trying to watch a porn-movie trailer. Nor is the hijacking of famous landmarks by advertisers anything new.

As long ago as 1925, the car-maker André Citroën used 250,000 lights to emblazon his company’s name on the Eiffel Tower. Moreover, Gormley is philosophical about the Morrisons stunt. "I’d rather the Angel is not used for such purposes, but it’s out there," he sighs. So why such an abject apology from the supermarket? It conceded that the stunt wasn’t to everybody’s taste, but added: "The last thing we want to do is offend anybody."

However, with social media’s power to stoke up and magnify any perceived error of judgment, are brands so unwilling to cause upset that they are ready to apologise for even the most trivial lapses?


Andy Nairn, founding partner, Lucky Generals

"Many brands have recently become more worried about doing the wrong thing. This isn’t helped by social media, where anyone can complain about anything. Companies feel they have to apologise rather than just laugh it off. The problem with Morrisons’ stunt is that it didn’t quite work and wasn’t very funny. Now everybody in the Twittersphere knows about it and, by apologising, the company has drawn attention to itself for all the wrong reasons. All these apologies are getting rather tiresome. They only mean anything if you plan to do something about what you’ve done wrong."


Matt McDowell, marketing director for Northern Europe, Toshiba

"There’s so much pressure on clients to get a return on their spend that it’s impossible to get too paranoid about apologising if you do something wrong. Social media has increased the risk for companies. However, it’s important that clients do everything possible to avoid getting into that situation. It’s our responsibility to set the boundaries about what’s appropriate and ensure our agencies understand it. Sometimes they come up with amazing ideas. Sometimes those ideas border on the ridiculous. I would question the relevance of the Morrisons stunt. What’s a French baguette got to do with the Angel of the North?"

Agency head

Ian Humphris, founder and joint managing director, Life

"Brands in general are too quick to apologise because they can’t bear the thought of social media directing the discussion. But sometimes – as in Morrisons’ case – it’s probably better to do so and move on. The reason is that Morrisons, as a grocery retail brand, isn’t at the cutting edge  of social media, where having conversations can be difficult, and everything, particularly on Twitter, is black or white, good or bad. It’s probably better that Morrisons says sorry for a lame bit of marketing that most of its customers never saw, and wouldn’t care about it if they did."


Craig Mawdsley, joint chief strategy officer, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"Morrisons’ mistake wasn’t doing the stunt, but apologising for it. These things have to be done in a spirit of cheekiness and with a contingency plan for the event of a backlash. If you’re not willing to be criticised for something like this, then why bother doing it? Organisations get forced into apologising when they aren’t properly joined up. That often means the marketing department gives the go-ahead, and the first thing the PR people hear about it is when the storm breaks."