LIVE ISSUE/POST-CRISIS ADVERTISING: Can positive advertising outweigh negative PR? Or do post-crisis ads just aggravate people all over again? By Eleanor Trickett

Advertising has many demands heaped upon it, but occasionally an agency will get the mother of all briefs - to perform a miracle and turn a company in crisis into a jolly and prosperous concern.

Advertising has many demands heaped upon it, but occasionally an

agency will get the mother of all briefs - to perform a miracle and turn

a company in crisis into a jolly and prosperous concern.

Following allegations about its environmental and human rights record,

Shell is to pump dollars 200 million into a worldwide corporate campaign

through M&C Saatchi designed to boost its tarnished image (Campaign, 6


At the end of 1995, Shell stood accused of complicity in the judicial

murder of the author, Ken Saro-Wiwa, at the hands of the Nigerian


Through press ads that ran at the time, Shell dissociated itself from

the Nigerian regime, but the damage had been done and pressure groups

urged a boycott of the oil giant. Then a controversial attempt to dump

the Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea saw Shell’s green

credentials plummet further.

Now Shell is pitching itself as a company ’which invests in the future’

- a claim that has al-ready incurred the wrath of environmental pressure

groups. A spokesman for Greenpeace claimed the ad budget would buy ten

solar factories in the UK. It is increasingly apparent that an ad-shaped

sticking plaster is no longer guaranteed to provide a panacea for a

company facing an image problem.

There is an old argument surrounding post-crisis advertising. It goes

along the lines of there being one type of consumer who has been happily

using the brand for years and doesn’t correlate the stories on the news

with his or her shopping trips. There is another type of consumer,

however, who makes the decision to boycott unethical brands and will not

be assuaged by soothing advertising.

But post-crisis ads can sometimes work. Perrier is one such brand that

made a victorious comeback after a potential PR disaster. In February

1990, minute traces of the chemical, Benzene, were found in the mineral

water. The company acted immediately and an unprecedented complete

withdrawal followed. Perrier’s UK ad agency, Leo Burnett, was not

panicked into producing new ads straight away, apart from an interim

press ad announcing that all potentially contaminated stock had been

taken out of circulation.

It wasn’t until April of that year, when the new stock was on the

shelves, that a one-off celebrity campaign was unleashed with the line,

’Helleau again’. One year on, Perrier was back as the number one mineral

water in the UK, having recaptured a claimed 50 per cent of its


This success was attributed by Perrier to the amount of goodwill the

brand had built up over the previous 18 years. Shell, however, has a

somewhat less clean and pure image. It is unrealistic to expect what is

perceived as a fundamentally unsavoury substance - oil - to engender the

same amount of trust and affection as mineral water. But with more work

to do, the advertising quick-fix is even less appropriate and the brand

has to put more than its money where its mouth is, Paul Twivy, a partner

at the new agency, Circus, says.

’The most important thing when any sort of controversy or crisis has

occurred is to put the behaviour of the company right. People now know

the difference between a pseudo-brand, with a slick, manufactured image,

and what the real company beneath is actually like. Your principle as a

company must be: if you do the right thing by your community and

environment, then you have a right to push that further by advertising -

but only when the results of your action are tangible.’

Government bodies are hasty to wheel out an ad campaign at the first

sniff of trouble. Following the BSE scare in November 1995, a campaign

for British Beef by the Meat and Livestock Commission through the

Ministry of Agriculture - along with a rosette guaranteeing beef mince

as offal-free - was rushed out. However, there was criticism that too

long had elapsed between news of the crisis and the feel-good ads. The

Government countered that the public would have been alienated by soft

advertising slogans while they were still angry and confused by the

conflicting reports about the hazards of eating beef.

This shows how a brand can wander into a minefield of ’damned if I do,

damned if I don’t’ politics at the time of a crisis. Mike Davis,

managing director of Leagas Shafron Davis, is no stranger to

controversial advertising himself, having just completed the Inland

Revenue’s self-assessment campaign - billed by the client itself as ’the

brief from hell’. ’There is an unwritten rule that says when a plane

crashes, the airline pulls its advertising for about a fortnight,’ he

says, ’but then picks itself up and carries on as before. If I was in

Shell’s position and decided to lay low, the last thing people will have

heard about my company would be negative publicity - it might as well

admit guilt. You have to get back out there and advertise.’

Shell itself is being coy about the details of the campaign - or indeed,

if it is to happen at all - but word has it that a large part of the

budget will be blown on a spectacular 120-second commercial. Greenpeace,

with its alternative plans for the budget, might have a point here, says

Twivy. ’The solar factories are a good idea, but it’s not as easy as

many people think to move budgets around. Real brand managers of good

companies do, however, have to understand the community. My broad view

is that I have more sympathy with Greenpeace than with a dollars 200

million-spending company.’