Each week, Daily Maverick brings you a round-up of some of the stranger happenings from South Africa and further afield. This week: in loving memory of Bell Pottinger’s PRCA membership, we take a look at the most epic PR disasters in recent years. Which, somehow, were still not nearly as bad.
Bell Pottinger has made history for all the wrong reasons. And yet they’re not alone in doing the opposite of their job: making reputations better, not worse. Although Bell Pottinger’s South African adventure is undoubtedly leading the charge, dishonourable mention is due to this fun bunch, for that awkward moment when…
Phillip Morris endorsed smoking… because killing people saves money
Philip Morris reasoned that early death, plus the funds collected via cigarette tax, was better value for money than the costs associated with treating sick smokers. Needless to say, anti-smoking lobbyists were not thrilled. For that matter, neither were smokers.
That said, it’s possible Philip Morris did more for the anti-smoking movement with that one comment than a year of lobbying. Don’t hate, congratulate.
Clothing designers showed us the meaning of sensitivity
Kenneth Cole, the shoe designer, tweeted during the political riots in Egypt: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumour is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” A similar touch was displayed by Celeb Boutique, who – during the shootings in Aurora – noted: “#Aurora is trending. Clearly our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress.” Classy.
Volkswagen cheated on its carbon emissions tests
Say it with me: there are some tests you just can’t cheat on. Volkswagen, however, opted to learn this the hard way. In a scandal known as the diesel dupe, VW was caught selling diesel vehicles with a “defeat device” that could detect when they were being tested, changing performance accordingly to improve results. A sheepish VW admitted that about 11-million cars worldwide were fitted with the device, because their profit margin will be really important when we are all vrekking in a global hotbox. To their credit, VW America boss Michael Horn knew defeat when he saw it and didn’t try to sugar-coat the disaster. “We’ve totally screwed up,” he conceded.
Trump played Rent-A-Crowd
Size matters to the US president. Apart from apparently engineering applause, Agent Orange throws toys if the crowd isn’t big enough at his public appearances. He has been caught fudging the details of the crowd size more than once. Latest gaffe? Praising the size of the crowd while touring to inspect the Hurricane Harvey damage. You can’t make this stuff up. Heck, some days one wonders if the storm itself was just the hot air coming out of him.
Alternative facts were invented
Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer deserve their own hall of shame. There’s really no need to comment here. They said it all themselves.
Elon Musk waved off the (fatal) car crashes caused by Tesla’s driverless cars… because they didn’t impact shareholders.
Well, that’s all right then.
Yahoo tried to cover up one of the biggest online security breaches, ever.
For two years. And the news came out two months after agreeing to sell to Verizon for $4.8-billion. Oops.
Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”
Amazingly, a half-second nip slip turned into extended belly-aching on American morality, a Supreme Court battle and months (years?) of debate on whether it was an accident or a pre-planned publicity stunt. Rather than taking a common-sense approach, the incident was explained clunkily as a “wardrobe malfunction”.
Gwyneth Paltrow opened her mouth
The Jackson lesson in unnecessary clumsiness did not deter a generation of celebrity spokespeople from adopting the same strategy. Notable followers include the bright spark who came up with Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling” – a phrase Paltrow later claimed she had never even heard when it went viral. Allegedly one of the couple’s “people” thought it up on their behalf – a move that would surely make Gwyneth be even more relatable than the time she recommended women steam their vaginas for an “energetic release”. Or the time she said she’d “rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a can”.
Paltrow has since parted ways from her controversial wellness (read: poverty-inducing) brand Goop, which has been slammed for its misleading health claims. But not before cashing in on an eye-wateringly expensive Goop expo, which included such wonders as a collagen garden and aura photographer.
Miss Universe, uh, wasn’t.
At the end of 2015, Steve Harvey called out Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutierrez, as the winner. Except Gutierrez wasn’t the winner. The winner was Miss Philippines, Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach.
There’s no coming back from that, is there? Harvey backtracked fast and was very apologetic. “This is exactly what’s on the card,” he said. “I will take responsibility for this. It was my mistake. It was on the card. Please don’t hold it against the ladies.” To be fair, nobody did. You had one job, dude!
Bridgestone tried to cover up its faulty tyres… for years
Bridgestone manufactured a line of faulty tyres starting in 1998 but failed to communicate the matter to the public. Eventually, in 2000, 6.5-million tyres were recalled and the tyres were said to be connected to some 200 deaths and more than 700 injuries. Totally normal, nothing to see here, folks.
Abercrombie & Fitch released racist T-shirts… and responded with worse
The T-shirts were criticised for depicting Asians in an insulting manner. A&F responded: “We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt.”
Multiple choice quiz. Which answer do you think A&F was expecting?
A month later, undeterred by the existing negative publicity, they introduced thong underwear for little girls – which they explained away as “fun”. (Again with the ingratitude. Unbelievable!)
The ‘Only in SA’ category
Xpanda came under fire for an advert that characterised a black man explaining that he was in jail for stealing his “madam’s chicken”. Xpanda has a history of controversial adverts, including one print ad that features a heavily pregnant woman in skimpy clothes and the caption: “A one-night-stand arrives with a bump and bad news. You should have had an Xpanda.” Because we’re really striving to increase the number of absent fathers.
Xpanda issued the mother of all non-apologies, including key phrases like “we apologise that you feel offended” and “it is VERY IMPORTANT” (caps essential) “to understand that we have by no means singled out any one ethnic group as we have recorded four ads in total for this campaign… we honestly feel that you will be a bit more enlightened and feel less aggrieved once you hear the other three ads.” Because the problem here is really the listener’s ignorance and lack of enlightenment. And the answer to bad stereotyping is to add more stereotyping!
The Feed a Child campaign, which depicted a black child being fed from the table like a dog. The creators claimed the advert was arguing that people feed their pets better than some children are fed. Two words for that defence: tone deaf.
The Shaggy ‘It wasn’t me’ Award: OUTsurance
When OUTsurance came under fire for a Father’s Day ad that depicted mostly white dads, head of marketing Peter Cronje placed the responsibility squarely on a junior employee. He added that it was the first time the company had had trouble with one of its ads, which wasn’t strictly true. Activist Yusuf Abramjee alluded to a similar Mother’s Day advert, reported The Star. DM
Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.