Social Media

How not to do a social media viral campaign

So back in 2006 a guy named Scott Ableman and some co-workers covered another co-worker’s Jaguar with thousands of Post-it (R) notes and put the pictures on Flickr. The pictures are cool — Scott Ableman’s Flickr page with the pics and story is here. You’ve probably seen them already since they went viral, ended up in millions of emails, plenty of websites, blogs including BoingBoing, made the front page of Digg, etc.  Clearly I live under a rock, since the first time I found out about it was a few minutes ago in the post, “3M ‘Steals’ Post-It Note Jaguar Viral Sensation” on AdRants, Steve Hall’s great blog/website that constantly points out some of the advertising industry’s less admirable efforts.

Scott Ableman's Post-It Note Covered Jaguar Image that was used without permission by 3M Post-It
Scott Ableman's Post-it Note Covered Jaguar

About a year later, 3M found out about it and decided to re-create the pictures in their own campaign. The image has shown up in stores from Norway to Japan, Sweden to Singapore, and Russia to Brazil. The kicker is, they refused to pay the photographer, Scott, the usage fee he asked for, according to this excellent post by Melanie Phung here on her blog, “All About Content”. (Check it out — she’s even got an email from the eMarketing Supervisor at 3M informing Scott they could copy his pictures for $750-$1000, but if he would charge them that same fee, they’d be happy to use his!). At that point, he lowered his fee to $2000 but that was too rich for 3M, a multi-billion dollar multinational.

This was a perfect opportunity for 3M Post-its to join a social media conversation, celebrate the photographer who started it, and get a tremendous amount of positive publicity and buzz. Instead, for a measly up charge of about $1000 from what they’d been quoted to copy it, 3M decided to steal Scott’s creativity, ignore a Creative Commons Attribution license, and spit in the face of the larger social media community.

The real crime of it, no matter how loudly the blogosphere and consumers complain about their actions, is that they’re probably quite content with their actions, and probably won’t even notice any negative impact from the issue. But maybe not.

Can someone at 3M (or anywhere else for that matter) explain to me what 3M Post-It Notes thought they’d be gaining by abusing social media this way, compared to what they’re actually going to lose as a result?

(And just because I don’t feel like getting into trouble for stealing someone else’s property, I want to be clear that 3M and Post-it are trademarks of 3M. There you go.)

(One more note. Jim commented below that I innacurately stated that 3M used Scott’s picture without permission in both my photo caption and my post. I have since corrected both. This post is the corrected version. Thanks for keeping me honest, Jim.)

By jlsimons

I’m a storyteller who has spent my life focused on the things people do for fun, from games and hobbies to comic books and podcasts. I love building and managing teams of incredible people and empowering them to do the best, most fun and fulfilling work of their careers. I am also a senior level marketing executive with a unique blend of over 34 years of podcast marketing, social media community building, promotional partnerships, advertising, interactive, branding, marketing, paid and organic search, direct response, analytics, and game design. Along the way, I've built a leading podcast brand and a million-plus-subscriber YouTube channel, created multinational promotions for global brands, and co-desiged critically acclaimed collectible card and role-playing games.
Oh yeah, and I write science fiction.

Specialties: Podcast marketing, social media community building, promotional partnerships, integrated marketing, social media, strategic marketing, alternate channels, direct response, corporate marketing, copywriting, advergaming, game design and development, financial advertising

9 replies on “How not to do a social media viral campaign”

That’s great, Jen. I love C&H. I’ve got to show it to my wife, she does too. I can’t believe it lasted 6 days. Those villains! Thanks. As for 3M, it’s like so many other companies with Social Media. Remember the fake Wal-Mart blogs? I think it shows their lack of respect for consumers in general, and consumers of social media in particular.

“Scott Ableman’s Post-it Note Covered Jaguar photo that was used without permission by 3M Post-it”

Seems to me like a bit of over-reaction. And, they did NOT use his car photo. They simply created the stunt with their own car, design and photos as an example. If anything I think they are guilty of being “also-rans” but thieves? I don’t think so.

Covering a car with stickies is hardy a unique or even interesting idea. If I were to try and think of a fun way to use these things for a stunt the FIRST thing I would think of is covering something. Car, plat boat, building.If you look at their contest there are many ideas that are either similar or the same.

Jim: Thank you for the correction and your comment. I’ll fix my wrong facts in the blog post in a second. And as to the rest of your comment, I have to respectfully disagree.

Whether Scott’s idea was either unique or interesting, it wasn’t the idea 3M was trying to copy. It was the viral buzz they were trying to co-opt. Once something has gotten the kind of volume of discussion and awareness that Scott’s photos got, to “create the stunt with their own car” still seems to me like trading on Scott’s work.

Beyond the buzz, though, if a photographer or an illustrator creates a piece of art, and then a company or agency creates a knock off rather than pay the illustrator, I think that’s wrong too. It happens. But I think its wrong. If I decided to do what 3M did to a book or a movie or a song, it would be considered plagiarism. Although frequently, plagiarism seems to be okay in advertising. I just don’t approve of it. Throw in the fact that they even offered to use his work and when he wouldn’t low ball his price, they copied it, and you can’t even let them plead ignorance. Intellectual property rights and protections exist so we don’t live in a world of Berbie dolls and Mikey Mouses, walking down the street singing “Barn in the USA” in our Nykee sneakers. (Unless of course it’s an homage, a sample, or protected legally as a satire, neither of which 3M can claim.)

Thanks again for your comment.

This reminds me of Vigilante Advertising stealing one of my images years ago to use in a Mystic campaign, and when I said something, I was told the burden of proof was on me to prove where they’d seen it.

I’d painted the piece at least five years before they used it as a springboard. It was on my site, on my mailers, on my business cards…

Take a look, tell me if I’m crazy. Just scroll down a bit:

Marrus, you put your finger exactly on the toughest aspect of the issue: how do you prove your creativity was more than merely inspirational, but actually stolen? As a creator of any kind, the minute you see/read/hear something that you gave birth to, you recognize it, regardless of the lousy wig and garish makeup. But anyone can hide behind “Wait a minute, I came up with that myself,” be it true or false. And then what are you left with, the right to sue a company with a staff of lawyers (or the money to buy them, basically the same thing) and no real way to prove it anyway?

I also love your comment towards the end of your post about people who brag about illegally downloading music. For me, it’s friends who download movies with Bite-me-torrent. Worse, after they admit it and I call them on it, some of them try and justify it with things like, “The studios are just raping us anyway” or “I’d see it eventually on TV for free.” Theft is theft.

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