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Chinese Democracy, Marketing Larceny

“You can have anything you want, but you better not take it from me. ”                                 Welcome to the Jungle,  Guns N’ Roses

“I’m a pepper, he’s a pepper, she’s a pepper, we’re a pepper, wouldn’t you like to be a pepper too?”    Dr. Pepper

As you read this, Dr. Pepper finds itself in a sticky mess, entirely of its own making. This past March, Dr. Pepper declared that if Guns N’ Roses finally finished its album “Chinese Democracy” before the end of the year, Dr. Pepper would give a free soda to everyone in the country.

It probably seemed like a safe bet at the time:  Axl Rose had been working on Chinese Democracy for 13 years, an estimated $11 million dollar pipe-dream. The album had itself become a symbol of what the name implied:  something that was inevitable, but in no way imminent.

Well, G N’ R finished the album and released it on November 23, exclusively through Best Buy.

And so the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (the company that makes Dr. Pepper) had to live up to its promise to give a 20 oz. soda to everyone in America. They intended to do this by allowing consumers to go to their website for a 24-hour period and download a coupon for the free pop. With the US population estimated at over 300 million, that means that to realistically deliver on their promise, if they ever had any intention of doing that, would have required their servers to handle an average of 12,500,000 hits an hour, or 208,333 hits a minute, or 3,472 hits a second.

Needless to say, their servers crashed and the site went down. Good thing, too, because I truly doubt Dr. Pepper’s ability to produce 300 million cans of soda by February, 2009, when the free offer redemption would end.

But I’m not here to write about a botched promotion. No, I’m here to write about a dishonest one.

You see, when Dr. Pepper first announced the promotion, Axl Rose said he was “surprised and very happy to have the support of Dr. Pepper with our album, ‘Chinese Democracy,’ as for us, this came totally out of the blue.” as reported in the LA Times.

And according to Reuters, Guns N’ Rose’s attorney Alan Guttman has written to Dr. Pepper’s CEO, saying, “that the original campaign was an “exploitation of my clients’ legendary reputation and their eagerly awaited album” and “brazenly violated our clients’ rights.” He is also seeking an “appropriate payment … for the unauthorized use and abuse of their publicity and intellectual property rights,” with the threat of further action if an acceptable offer is not made… The entire point of your campaign has been to use public interest in Axl Rose and Guns N’ Roses as a lure to increase consumer awareness of Dr Pepper.” He further states that “mocking undertones” in the online promotional content represent a “raw and damaging commercial exploitation of our clients’ rights,” adding that the association is “even more damaging in light of your shoddy execution of your disingenuous giveaway offer.”

Sounds like G N’ R had nothing to do with the promotion, right?

That may not exactly be the case according to Rolling Stone, who today reported that the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group claims that Guns N’ Roses’ own management group first approached them about a promotion, and Axl expressed support for the promotion.

But whether Guns N’ Roses knew or not, nobody is claiming that the band got paid for the promotion. And that’s the part that’s got me bubbling. After all, if 3-M stealing the Post-It Note covered car idea can get me annoyed, just think what Dr. Pepper’s public and parasitic theft of Axl’s thunder means to me.

Who at the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group decided that it would be okay to do a promotion based on an album release without compensating the band?  Are celebrities and their work now fair game?  Can I put a picture I take of Tiger Woods in an ad for Adidas? What about taking a picture of new Cover Girl Ellen Degeneres and put her in an ad for Maybelline?  Can I use a band’s songs or an artist’s painting in a commercial without paying for the right to do it? No, companies have to pay when they associate advertising and promotions with celebrities and their creativity. (Or at least get permission, as John McCain found out time after time with song after song in his campaign.)

Did they think that because they were wrapping the promotion around an event — the long awaited release of the album — rather than the actual album meant they could get away without paying? Because if they did, does that mean I can run a public, high profile promotion based on the Super Bowl? I think the NFL lawyers might have something to say about that. JK Rowling is releasing a new book tomorrow. Can I run a national promotion based on the book’s release?  People pay to sponsor and be involved with high profile events.

Maybe Dr. Pepper got confused and thought they were doing Axl Rose a favor in some perverse form of cause related marketing. (Way back in 1983 American Express ran a groundbreaking cause related marketing program for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. And although they raised $1.7 million for the project, they actually weren’t an official sponsor of the project and never paid to be one.) But when you attach yourself to a non-profit through cause related marketing, the non-profit gets something for the association, usually in the form of contribution.

Or maybe it all just started as a dumb joke that grew out of control, and Dr. Pepper thinks they can wave it off. (Oh wait, they’re not waving anything off.  According to the LA Times, a spokesman released a statement that actually said “This was one of the largest responses we have ever received for a giveaway, and we’re happy we were able to satisfy the thirst of so many Dr Pepper fans.”)

No, I’m sorry, but I still can’t figure out a way to see this that doesn’t have Dr. Pepper trying to cash in on the creativity and reputation of someone else without compensating them for the relationship. But maybe I’m being stubborn and shortsighted.

So can someone please explain to me — ideally someone from Dr. Pepper Snapple Group — what exactly they thought they would gain by this ill conceived, poorly executed, and ultimately exploitative promotion?

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

4 replies on “Chinese Democracy, Marketing Larceny”

Whoops- Dr. Pepper is produced by DPSU – Dr. Pepper-Seven Up, a division of Cadbury-Schweppes. Cadbury-Schweppes also owns the Snapple Beverage Group. While some resources are shared between DPSU and SBG, they remain independent divisions.

Otto, I see your whoops and I raise you a “Doh!” — in May, 2008, Cadbury Shweppes spun off the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Inc. and itself became Cadbury plc.

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