Archive for the ‘Misleadership’ Category

We had to buy a microwave oven the other day, so I did what I always do before making a purchase: I went online to Consumer Reports.org to do some research. I’m not alone: according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, of the 79% of adult Americans who use the Internet, 81% “look for information online about a service or product (they) are thinking of buying.”

Not all of those pre-purchase researchers go to Consumer Reports, but my wife and I do, just like my parents have always done. This time, though, I was shocked by the results. (I apologize that I can’t link to the results, or that I won’t be mentioning them in this article, but CR is a subscription service, and I don’t wish to violate the terms of use.)

In their Microwave section, Consumer Reports rated various countertop microwaves from multiple manufacturers as Best Buys, and I read the rankings on all of them. Then I noticed Customer Reviews for each model — and that the Average Ratings for the top models were glaringly bad. In fact, the average reviews for all the models rated were bad. As I read the reviews, one common thread emerged:  the customers, all of whom are Consumer Reports subscribers, not only disagreed with the CR ratings and reported reliability, but were genuinely upset that CR had given them information that led to an unsatisfying, and in many cases disastrous or even explosive results. I lost track of the number of “Shame on you, Consumer Reports” type comments I read.

I read all of the reviews, desperately searching for a Microwave that had a positive result. One review mentioned that they eventually found a good microwave by reading the customer reviews on Best Buy, even though the units rated well on BestBuy were not rated well on CR.

So I went to BestBuy.com, read the reviews and found three microwaves that didn’t sound like they’d blow up or die inexplicably whether within or outside of the warranty period. Then I did what Pew says most Americans who research products online do: I went to an actual brick and mortar store to make my purchase. (One side note: while in the store, I heard a Best Buy employee interacting with a shopper. When asked about the GE models, he said something like, “I’d recommend anything we sell except for the GE’s. They’ve been having quality problems for the past few years.” Now I’m not saying that CR rated GE products highly, or even at all, or that there were customer reviews on the CR website that singled out GE for quality problems; I’m simply saying what I heard in Best Buy.)

I left the store, happy and secure in the knowledge that my choice was backed up by the real experiences of real people — a feeling that I used to get from basing my choices on reviews in Consumer Reports.

Before you dismiss online customer reviews as the exclusive domain of malcontents, consider this survey by Bazaarvoice and Keller Fay, user review and WOM experts, reported here on Search Engine Watch:  “…79 percent of reviewers write reviews to reward a company for the quality of the product or service they bought, with 87 percent of the reviews being positive in tone… 97 percent of review readers find the reviews they read to be accurate.”

Customer Reviews are one of the most utilized forms of consumer generated content. When it comes to buying cars, JD Power’s 2008 New Autoshopper.com Study reports that 70% of autmotive Internet users utilize consumer generated content when shopping for a car, with 63% using customer ratings and reviews. (You can download the study here.) Search Engine Watch blogs here that customer reviews are one of the most important sources of product information, second only to word of mouth from a friend.

And before you dismiss the value of Consumer Reports, please consider that they were honest enough to print customer reviews that not only disagreed with them, but openly questioned the validity of their ratings. Those reviews sent me in a direction that led to my satisfied product purchase.

Will I ever use Consumer Reports to research a product before purchase again? You betcha! CR is still a great resource for product and category information, and their testing facilities still provide data that can’t be gotten anywhere else.

Will I ever skip the customer reviews and just read the ratings? What do you think?

But this whole experience leaves me with one unanswered question: Can someone please explain to me why there is such a consistent, category-wide disagreement between the ratings of the professional researchers at Consumer Reports and of the consumers reporting their own experiences with the same products?

“Guaranteed. Period.” (R)

Land’s End built their direct response business — and helped the industry grow — with their “Money Back, No Questions Asked” guarantee. They engendered trust in an inherently risky proposition, that of buying products you couldn’t pick up and touch. And perhaps, because they needed to live up to that guarantee, they also pursued a higher level of quality.

Compare Land’s End to the insurance industry.

Hard on the heals of Sully’s heroic Hudson landing of US Airways Flight #1549 comes the insurer AIG’s decision not to pay insurance claims for the passengers. They claim the pilots did everything right, there was no equipment failure, and the geese were an “unusual incident.”  Apparently, if there’s no negligence, there’s no liability.

It’s like the insurance companies not paying some homeowners after Katrina because the insurers claimed that the damage wasn’t from the flood, it was from wind-driven storm surge. To a normal person, four feet of water in your house is a flood.

Even worse, there is recision, the practice of canceling the insurance policies of sick policyholders, frequently to avoid having to honor them, and often on technicalities unrelated to their illness.

According to this article in the LA Times, Blue Cross actually praised and promoted employees who saved them millions. One employee alone was praised for “dropping thousands of policyholders and avoiding nearly $10 million worth of medical care.”

How have we allowed a system to thrive where reality is trumped by legal fiction, or more accurately, legal stamina?  These insurance companies outwit, outlast and overwhelm us in the courts. Every day that they avoid paying out makes money for them at our expense.

Could you imagine another industry operating this way?

Imagine if Land’s End had acted this way? “Guaranteed. Until it’s not.” Who would have ever sent them a check? How long do you think they’d have lasted?

Land’s End became a powerful, popular and trusted brand because it lived up to its brand promises:  its quality, its customer service, and its guaranty.

How can the insurance industry ever hope to be loved and trusted by consumers when it continues to weasel its way out of its promises.

More importantly, can someone please explain to me how long we’re going to go on enabling these companies who are addicted to gambling with our money and then using legal obfuscation to avoid the consequences when they lose?

Good catalog copy needs to immerse its reader in an experience of a product they can’t touch. It’s a lonely voice in the wilderness, tasked with selling a product in a few words, at a distance, sometimes with the help of a picture.

Sure, if you’re selling copier paper or a toner cartridge in an office supplies catalog, you can get by with just the basics. But if you’re selling hand-stitched honeymoon hammocks made by entrepreneurial Maragucho mothers in steamy Venezuelan villages around Lake Maracaibo, or a $239.95 wooden ship model of The U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” or the softest pillow you’ve ever laid your weary head upon, non-descriptive copy just won’t do.

Your catalog doesn’t need to show your products in photographs, or even in color. Years before Banana Republic had brick and mortar stores, the Zeiglers’ hand-drawn, monotone illustrations on rough-hewn, un-coated digest-size stock built a direct response kingdom based on romance, adventure, intrigue and promise.

So did J. Peterman. Long before Seinfeld satirized him, his first ad was a 1/6 page black and white with a line drawing that appeared in the New Yorker back in the mid 80’s for the Cowboy Duster.

I still remember the last lines of that ad: “Although I live in horse country, I wear this coat for other reasons. Because they don’t make Duesenbergs anymore.” (See this People Magazine article from 2000 for the full story, including the name of the copywriter, Don Staley.)

The instant I read that ad I picked up the phone and ordered two coats, one for myself and one for my friend, noted funny car designer and railroad artist par excellence Tom Daniel.

I was a catalog copywriter at the time, selling wooden ship models and car collectibles at Model Expo, and I learned how to romance and sell just about anything by reading catalogs like Banana Republic and J. Peterman. (My copy for the Navy Issue Coffee Mug in the Lion’s Share catalog — “0:300 hours… the windswept, raindrenched bridge of a ship on patrol in the Pacific…” —  broke all sales expectations for what was supposed to be an impulse item throwaway on an order form.)

I get offended by bad  catalog copy. And there’s nothing worse than catalog copy that doesn’t deliver.

Why am I telling you this? Because I was just reading the black and white, line illustrated  Campmor catalog, my favorite outdoor adventure catalog, and came across the following available colors for hiking boots:  Havana, Jupiter, Gypsy and Brindle.

Now, to be sure, some color names are getting more intriguing, playful and engaging. I can figure out what color Butter is, especially when paired with Cordovan. Mint Green is easy, as is Dark Chocolate. Mud is a bit less clear – after all, wet dirt can come in a variety of hues. I’m pretty sure Limonata will look something like the liquid in those tiny Italian bottles of soda that cost way too much and never taste that good anyway.

But what about Beluga? Is it describing the whale, which is white, or the caviar, which is smoky black? Then there’s Moonstruck, Picante, London Fog, Andorra, Fossil, and Elephant (They don’t say whether they mean African, Indian or Pink. Hey, it matters!). Then there are the blues:  Pearl Blue, Turkish Blue, Brushed Metal Blue, and Goblin Blue. (I’ve played D&D for decades and never once heard of Goblin Blue.)

It’s not just one company. These colors describe boots by Columbia, Merrell, Vasque and North Face. I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to New Balance’s color palate:  Blue, Red, Brown, Black and Grey.

But my absolute favorite obfuscated colors are Havana, Jupiter, Gypsy and Brindle.

I looked at a Google Earth and for the life of me couldn’t figure out what color Havana is. (Unless they were making a sideways reference to skin color, but even then, Cuban skin color varies in the extreme from light to dark.)

I looked at a picture of Jupiter on Google. Do they mean the spot or the bands? And are they looking at the red-tinged color enhanced photos, the washed out grey ones, or what?

Gypsy — I don’t even know where to start, given that traditional Gypsy garb is very colorful and almost never monotone.

The best of all is Brindle. According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Brindle is defined as “Having obscure dark streaks or flecks on a gray or tawny background.” Mmm, I want a pair of those to go with my Roan pants and Harlequin shirt. (What, no dog lovers out there?)

Look, I love when copywriters romance their descriptions. And I get the problem of making your product stand out from the next when they’re all colored Brown. But what’s wrong with using words that simultaneously describe and romance? Nobody was ever left wondering what color Mocha is, or whether Apricot would look better on your feet than Desert Sand.

I guess I could just go to the Campmor website and look at the pictures to find out what color these colors really are. But doesn’t that defeat the purpose of a printed mail order catalog in the first place?

So, since I’m clearly too stubborn to find out on my own, can someone please explain to me what color Havana is?

To a direct marketer, testing is vital. But it’s important to know exactly what you’re testing. If you’re not careful, what you think your test is telling you may not be what it’s saying at all.

It’s not just in direct marketing and business that testing matters, as you’ll see in a minute.

Evan Jones, my good friend and ex-Partner-in-Crime at our old game company, QED Games, Inc., is beginning to make a name for himself in an entirely new field, Climate Change. He’s about to be the “et al” in two scientific papers and was a key researcher in a current report to Congress.

Evan is part of a group led by meteorologist Anthony Watts (who writes a very popular blog, Watts Up With That, aTechnorati Top 5K blog with a ranking of 2083!) that is focused on a major aspect of Global Warming:  not whether it’s happening, but whether we know whether it is or not.

Evan and his colleagues have been examining the over 1200 U.S Historical Climate Network (USHCN) surface stations in the US that measure temperature. And what they’ve found is surprising. Nearly 89% of these stations are located in situations that render their data suspect or flawed according to the government’s own standards. Most of these stations were once fine, but encroaching urbanization has frequently turned an isolated station into one surrounded by heat sources. Add to this the fact that temperatures are recorded by citizen volunteers and are roughly 30% incomplete.

There’s more, of course. You can read about it here in this article from WBZ TV in Boston.  Better yet, WBZ did an interview with Evan while he was up in Boston assessing some of the surface stations there. You can watch the report here. And be sure to check out Anthony’s blog for even more examples of questionable data.

In the end it all adds up to one thing: the data doesn’t add up. It is, for the most part, not telling us what we think it’s telling us. For instance, when a station formerly situated in the middle of a field registers a temperature increase over the last decade but that station is now situated in a blacktop parking lot with an air conditioning exhaust unit nearby, is the planet getting warmer, or just the station’s readings?

Whether you’re building an online research survey, setting up a 16-cell direct mail testing matrix, optimizing a paid search campaign or collecting temperature data to prove or disprove global warming, you need to check your inputs, check your confidence in the amount and clarity of the data, and structure the test to actually answer the questions you’re asking.

It’s critical that your testing framework not be flawed or all of your results could be useless. It’s equally important that you analyze the testing results accurately. And if you go ahead and act on bad information, whether it’s a new product launch or an attempt to save the planet, you could be doomed to failure before you start.

And speaking of global warming and saving the planet, can someone please explain to me how anyone can be so certain of the truth when the tests themselves are flawed?

Have you seen the new commercials that look and feel like cable news programming?

I’ve seen at least three different variations for three different advertisers. The one I see the most is the most innocuous:  it’s for the “Mucho Money” show, a Jim Cramer “Mad Money” rip-off selling Optimum Online and related services. I say innocuous because nobody with half a brain could mistake it for a real news show. Not with the stock ticker at the bottom of the ad tracking the price of Mango Chutney and Waffle Irons.

But then there’s the “Breaking News from the TMU FHA Hotline” commercial that I think  sets dangerous precedents and needs to be taken off the air.

At the start of the commercial, the screen shouts “TMU” in huge type, then “Breaking News” in slightly smaller type. This is on for a a while, and then, in tiny print at the bottom of the screen for all of maybe 2 seconds, it says “The following is a Paid Advertisement brought to you by Topdot Mortgage.”

The rest of the commercial plays out just like a breaking news story on a cable news station. The ticker at the bottom of the screen says “Breaking News – Federal Government raises FHA Loan Limits…” and continues with newsspeak about loan rates, limits, etc.

The commercial ends with the “newscaster” saying “We’ll have more on this story and other developments on the next edition of the TopDot Mortgage Update.” This is followed by a screen that features TMU and a phone number and half a screen of incredibly fine print that’s up for all of maybe 5 seconds.

This isn’t the worst of these I’ve seen. The worst was one I saw on CNN one day while I was working out on the exercise bike in my gym. It started with the words “Special Report” and looked in every way like a cable news show and had absolutely no mention of an advertisement whatsoever. Unlike the comedic “Mucho Money” it was a serious attempt to come across as real news.

Having forgotten to stuff a fountain pen in my shorts, I couldn’t write down the name,  and I’ve been unable to find it since. (I think it said Investor Link Special Report, but I’m just not sure. If you’ve seen it, please let me know.)

I don’t do TV, so I don’t know whether these DRTV (Direct Response TV) ads are actionable or not. But I do create direct marketing print advertisements, so I have a standard to compare them to.

When we create print ads that take on an editorial look and feel, we add a slug to the ad that says “Advertisement” or “Advertorial” or “Paid Advertisement.” Even if we didn’t want to, the publications demand it or they won’t accept our ads. Some publications won’t accept an ad like that even if it does say advertisement clearly, just to avoid any potential confusion on the part of their readers.

But where was CNN when the “Special Report” ad ran? Don’t they bear some responsibility for airing a misleading ad that attempted to fool their viewers into thinking it was a CNN Special Report? Did USA think that the cursory notifications on the TMU “Breaking News” ad was enough to avoid confusion or worse in the minds of their viewers?

And more importantly, what was going on in the minds of the ad agencies that created these ads? Are they proud of their work? Did they beg their clients to clearly identify that these were ads, but failed to convince them?

Or did they tell their client, “Don’t worry, we’ll run it until we get caught, if we even get caught, then pay the minor fine and laugh all the way to the bank?”

We’re pretty safe in assuming that their clients don’t have a problem with taking advantage of gullible or vulnerable consumers. The greed and lack of moral responsibility exhibited by mortgage lenders and financial institutions is a big part of the reason the entire world economy is tanking right now. As one of the victims of the mortgage meltdown said on CNBC’s “House of Cards” said, “I may be stupid, but they’re guilty.”

But I really do want to know what the creatives were thinking. Can someone from the agency that created these ads please explain to me what you were hoping to achieve by running these misleading ads, and more importantly, how you sleep at night?

“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?

Do you remember the movie “Dave?”  In the 1993 political comedy, the President suffers a stroke while having an affair, and rather than let the public know, his Chief of Staff and Communications Director convince a look-alike to impersonate him.

In a conspiracy reminiscent of the movie, a much loved popular icon died recently, and rather than let him go, his handlers have conspired to make us think he’s still alive.

I’m talking about the Maytag Repairman, that lonely symbol of stoic superfluity in the face of unwavering reliability, a commercial icon who has been with us since 1967.

I’m not complaining about the latest actor to play Ol’ Lonely, Clay Earl Jackson, who replaced Hardy Rawls, who replaced Gordon Jump, who replaced Jesse White, the original Maytag Repairman.

No, I’m complaining about something that actually matters: brand integrity.

You see, the point of the Maytag repairman was that he was lonely because Maytags were so reliable that there was nothing for Ol’ Lonely to do. It was the core of Maytag’s brand image, the way Volvos are safe, Coke is refreshing and Apple is cool. “Built Strong to Last Long” says the Maytag website.

I was having lunch with my friend Steve the other day, and he told me something shocking. His Maytag broke down, more than once, and in the ensuing nightmare Steve found out that Maytag doesn’t service their own products anymore. They subcontract to third party repairmen through a third party customer support line.

In other words, the Maytag Repairman does not actually work for Maytag anymore.

Not that you’d know it from the language on their website: “To help you depend on your Maytag appliance for years to come, we’ve handpicked the best maintenance and service technicians.” And if you do need help, they’ve made it easy for you to schedule an appointment: “Skip the phone call and schedule an appointment online right now.” After all, they wouldn’t want you to talk to a live customer support representative who might spill the beans about their domestic outsourcing.

Another thing you might not easily learn from their website is that Maytag was bought by Whirlpool on April Fools Day, 2006. (No joke:  Wikipedia says April 1, although the Whirlpool corporate site says March 31. What a difference a day makes.) According to the Maytag article on Wikipedia, the plants would be closed within a year, most employees terminated, and the Board of Directors and CEO given 5 years severance. The name, however, would continue to be used on re-branded Whirlpool appliances. And obviously, so too the Maytag Repairman.

The Maytag site won’t tell you any of this. The beautifully produced flash Maytag Timeline goes all the way to 2007 and neglects to mention the sale.

In “About Maytag”, under “Corporation” there is in fact a link to Whirlpool, “Our Parent Company” as well as mentions in the press releases. And even though the “Investors” link says “Read the latest news and press releases from Maytag and Whirlpool Corporation” it takes you straight to the Whirlpool site… and then promptly disses Maytag.  Right there, in the Corporate Profile, it says “Whirlpool’s primary brand names — KitchenAid, Roper, Bauknecht, Ignis, Brastemp, Consul and its global Whirlpool brand — are marketed in more than 170 countries worldwide. Whirlpool Corporation is a significant supplier to Sears Holdings Corporation, which owns and controls the Kenmore brand name.”

Did you see Maytag listed?  Me neither.

Even worse, Kenmore was listed. Now I’m really worried. I was raised trusting Kenmore, and if Whirlpool has brought the same care and consideration to Kenmore that it’s brought to Maytag, I may have to switch to LG.

While the death of the Maytag repairman may come as a shock to you and me, customer review sites like BizRate and RateItAll are filled with uniformly negative reviews by customers who discovered he was gone the hard way. From their high end machines to their low, washing machines to refrigerator/freezers, the majority of the reviews all basically say the same thing:  Don’t buy Maytag. “Broke twice in a year and a half.” “We were warned but didn’t listen.” “Nightmare on Elm Street doesn’t compare.” “Buy at your own peril — Maytag’s folly.” “Extended service plan is awful.”

Interestingly, some of the customers say they bought their lemons because of positive online reviews. I did see professional reviews by a company named alaTest.co.Uk that were uniformly glowing and served to raise the overall ratings, at least on Biz Rate.

But when I went to Consumer Reports, I found that in the one category I checked, Washing Machines, Maytag was the most repair-prone among front loaders and second most among top loaders. (I wonder what Consumer Reports says about alaTest.co.uk?)

To sum up:  a company that built its brand reputation on quality and reliability, that took everything they stood for and created an iconic brand image symbolized by one of the most memorable advertising campaigns of all time, is not only not reliable, it isn’t even a real company anymore.

And yet, the Maytag Repairman is still starring in commercials, spewing an empty promise, like a long gone Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum or a ghastly computer generated Orville Redenbacher shilling popcorn. Dead men walking.

In this day and age, can a brand actually believe that it can get away with pretending to be something that it’s not?  Is a brand reliable just because it says it is?  Is misleadership a virtue now?

I subscribe to the belief that a brand is the conversation its stakeholders have about it, not the marketing propaganda it spews at consumers.

So can someone please explain to me how long we’re going to allow this unholy zombie of a Maytag Repairman to walk among us before we get our torches and send it flaming into the blackness where it belongs?


Back on July 10th, in my post “Is Obama Going To The Dogs?” I wrote about the Presidential Pup website where the AKC was holding an election to decide which dog the Obama girls should get. I wrote in glowing terms about what I thought was an excellent and timely marketing partnership.

And a successful one… at least for the AKC. Since they started, there have been 42,000 votes and a clear spike in traffic. According to Quantcast, site visits to AKC.org, which were hovering around 2.5 million before the start of the promotion at the beginning of July rose sharply over that month to a high of about 2.8 million in early August, only to drop again to their pre-promotion level by late August.

By the way, the Poodle won the election.

So when President-elect Obama mentioned his canine promise to his girls in his acceptance speech, I fully expected there to be some connection to the AKC partnership, at least in the days ahead.

Empathetically, I thought, if I were the AKC marketing director, and Obama didn’t mention our partnership at this global-attention focal point, I’d feel a bit ripped off. Talk about a missed opportunity. The whole reason to do a marketing partnership like that with a highly public cause is for the attention it brings. Even more problematic, he mentioned shelter dogs, not exactly the territory the AKC tends to pee in.

I went to the Obama site. Nothing about the AKC and the Presidential Pup site.

I just spent the last week at Ad:Tech listening to all the ways in which the Obama campaign has rewritten the rules of online marketing. According to Shelly Lazarus, Chairman and CEO of Ogilvy Mather Worldwide, the Obama campaign is the “best CRM campaign that has ever been run.”  For the Obama campaign to be involved in a marketing partnership and not to mention it on their site isn’t a mistake, it’s an impossibility.

So then I went to the Presidential Pup site at the AKC.  The site landing pages were updated on November 5th to reflect Obama’s victory and discuss his public reiteration of his promise to his girls. The site discusses the voting, and goes on to say “We hope the Obamas consider the survey results,” said AKC Spokesperson Lisa Peterson.

“We hope”?  “Considers”?  That didn’t exactly sound like a partnership to me, and it certainly didn’t sound like the tone of the original site.

Somebody at the AKC is definitely on the ball, though. In addition to the speed with which they updated their landing page, the page has a picture of two adorable poodle pups with the headline “A Pair of Poodles for Pennsylvania Avenue” and the caption which partially reads “A pair of six-week-old Toy Poodle puppies rescued by Flora’s Pet Project/Poodle Rescue Connecticut visited the American Kennel Club offices in Manhattan today to be photographed in hopes of catching the attention of the Obama family. The pups will be available for new homes in early January. They can be adopted by contacting…”

That’s great marketing. Obama specifically mentioned shelter dogs, so the AKC adds the “rescue dog” element to make their efforts more relevant. (As I recall, there was no mention of rescue dogs the first time around.)

They’re also spreading a wide net to attract attention. They made sure to mention that it was reported that Veep-Elect Biden has said his wife told him that if he got the vice presidency and got elected, he could get a dog. This too is good internet marketing, adding additional key words and relevance;  last time, they made sure they got the McCains in the story as well.

The site goes on to say “No matter what breed the Obamas or Bidens choose, the AKC hopes they can assist both families. “I would be happy to personally assist Obama and Biden in identifying a responsible breeder if they are looking for a puppy,” said AKC President & CEO Dennis Sprung”

The first site really made it seem like the Obama’s were along for the ride.  But now, it’s clear that wasn’t the case.

Nearly a decade ago, in our book, Making Money While Making a Difference, Dr. Richard Steckel and I wrote about the dangers of misleading the public when it comes to cause related marketing.  It’s only gotten worse since.  When you pretend to be helping a cause or when you aid and abet consumers in reaching the conclusion that you are aligned with a cause or group when you are really just trying to cash in on their publicity, you are in danger of a serious, negative backlash.

If the AKC were aligned with Obama, wouldn’t he have mentioned it in one of his long and involved post-acceptance speech statements about the promised pooch?

If this were the marketing partnership it seemed to be, then wouldn’t Obama have mentioned it at least once during the many times he’s had to address this overwhelmingly important issue since winning the nomination?

It’s not his fault if the issue keeps coming up: I mean, our economy is in the tank, the mid-East is loping towards a meltdown, attack dog Rahm Emanuel is the chief of staff of the face of change, and the press keeps wasting our time on shaggy dog stories.

Oh wait, so am I.

No, I’m not.

According to Wikipedia, “Shaggy dog stories play upon the audience’s preconceptions of the art of joke telling. The audience listens to the story with certain expectations, which are either simply not met or met in some entirely unexpected manner.” While I don’t claim that the AKC intended to amuse us, I do think their whole presidential pup story is a bad joke with utterly unmet expectations and an unexpected conclusion.

I’m writing about a marketing disconnect. A missed opportunity. Or, more likely, a misleading one. Just another example of misleadership, this one on the part of the AKC.

What do you think?  Can someone please explain to me whether the AKC is practicing good marketing or misleadership?

Have you seen the commercials where the guy is singing about freecreditreport.com? In one he and his band are dressed as pirates in a cheesy seafood restaurant. In another, he and his “posse” are playing their instruments and singing as they drive a mangled used subcompact car off the lot.

The jingles are very catchy, the kind that get stuck in your head and won’t leave until you think of something even stickier and nastier, like “I’m too sexy for my shirt.” (Sorry, I had to do it.)

In the car commercial, he sings “F-R-E-E that spells free credit report.com baby.”

Only guess what? Freecreditreports.com isn’t free. It charges a monthly monitoring fee, which you can cancel without ever paying, although I’m guessing that many people forget and I’m betting their business model is based on a particular percentage of people doing exactly that.

In their defense, at the end of the commercial, in fine print at the top of the screen and in a rapid voiceover they say “Offer applies with enrollment in Triple Advantage.”  I guess that constitutes fair warning that something is up, although there’s no mention of a fee of any kind, while the URL freecreditreport.com is highly visible in bold white type in the lower right corner throughout the entire commercial.

On their website they are equally clear and honest. In small gray type on a grey background, smaller than the bold type on the rest of the page, off to the side, away from the big golden oval that says, in glowing letters, “Get your Free Credit Report & Score,” it says:

“IMPORTANT INFORMATION

When you order your free report here, you will begin your free trial membership in Triple AdvantageSM Credit Monitoring. If you don’t cancel your membership within the 7-day trial period**, you will be billed $14.95 for each month that you continue your membership.

ConsumerInfo.com, Inc. and Freecreditreport.com are not affiliated with the annual free credit report program. Under a new Federal law, you have the right to receive a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies. To request your free annual report under that law, you must go to http://www.annualcreditreport.com.”

That’s quite a different little tune than “F-R-E-E that spells free credit report.com baby.”

Listening to that song got me thinking about another song, which I hereby dedicate to those champions of misleadership at Freecreditreports.com. (Apologies to Kris Kristofferson, who wrote the original Me and Bobby McGee – yes, he wrote it, not Janis.)

Free is just another word for hidden fees to pay,
those fees are piling up now every day,
New is just another word for same stuff different day
Don’t they have to mean the things they say, oh yeah,
How can it be free if we have to pay?

Can someone please explain to me how we as an industry expect people to listen to our ads and believe our claims when we keep singing the same misleading song?