Brands must bear up to new culture of complaining

Action for Children
Action for Children

LONDON - The web makes it easy to raise objections, so brands must be ready to respond.

Has complaining to industry watchdogs become Britain's favourite pastime?

The 'grin and bear it' principle of old certainly appears to have been replaced by a greater willingness among members of the public to lodge gripes about the actions of a company or the marketing of a brand.

The BBC, which has been the subject of several campaigns in the press citing serious editorial lapses, has been the most high-profile target recently, having seemingly lurched from one crisis to another.

Chris Wood, chairman of branding agency Corporate Edge, which works for the BBC Trust, says it not yet clear how the most recent wave of complaints has damaged the brand. However, there is a silver lining: the campaigns have given the Trust's profile a significant boost. 'People now know it exists and its responsibilities,' he says.

Aside from the popular press, social media, such as Facebook, blogs and email, have made it easier for critics and special-interest groups to rally support from like-minded individuals and prompt them into complaining.

The charity Action for Children has found itself the target of a Facebook group, with more than 2000 members condemning its latest ad. The execution features a voiceover by an autistic teenager talking about his experience of the condition, treatment and help he has received, while animated images depicting a monster give way to pictures of a 'normal' boy on screen. The Advertising Standards Authority subsequently received more than 50 complaints that the ad was liable to increase the stigma around the condition and be perceived as offensive.

A spokesman for the ASA confirms that online campaigning techniques have resulted in an increased volume of complaints all-round. 'We often receive identikit complaints about particular ad campaigns. These are created on a blog or a website and readers/visitors to that site are encouraged to forward them to the ASA.'

Volkswagen is another brand that has inadvertently found itself under the spotlight. Its latest Golf ad, in which the car's designer engages in martial arts-style fighting with doppelgangers, attracted almost 600 complaints, while a Polo ad from April last year showing a shivering dog drew a similar number.

'We haven't had a good run,' admits Morna Steel, VW's marketing communications manager for small cars. The marque had braced itself for some complaints about the Golf ad, but Steel was surprised by the number about the Polo creative. 'It didn't cross our minds that people would think we would harm a dog,' she adds.

There are brands that deliberately seek to breach ad codes, cause offence and therefore attract attention. The use of overtly sexual imagery is a favourite recourse for little-known drinks brands, with Saile and Sabga Champagne and vodka brand Belvedere both trying this tactic last year. As is usually the case, by the time the ASA had finished investigating, the publicity has been achieved and the campaigns had finished. Airline Ryanair is a well-known recidivist in this area.

Added Value brand director Paul Cowper says that for some brands, attracting complaints through irreverence fits their image. 'Ryanair doesn't work on brand affinity. No one says, "I'll only ever fly Ryanair". People use it because it's cheap.' Unilever's Pot Noodle, the self-styled 'slag of all snacks', is another brand that has found success by sailing close to the wind. That said, Cowper warns against sticking to this strategy for too long, citing the example of the FCUK ads, which, he says, became 'stale' as people were no longer shocked by them.

The cliche that there is no such thing as bad publicity is a key driver in some brands' marketing strategies, others are having it forced on them. For both, the challenge is to come up with fresh ways to respond to the complaints, which show no sign of abating.

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