Some bad ideas are so terrible they deserve an award

From Airbnb to Mastercard to ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ wine, marketing fails come at you fast

 

It has been a long hot summer of bad ideas. The last three months have been a sweltering beach of marketing wheezes so irredeemably flawed that it’s barely even worth wasting energy on the instant and wholly correct backlash.

Someone else has got this. Just pull up a deckchair and wait for the inevitable decision “not to move forward”.

Let’s start with the most recent wonder: Airbnb’s competition for a sleepover on the Great Wall of China. The premise was simple and ironic. Submit a 500-word essay on overcoming cultural boundaries and you could be one of four people to win a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience to sleep in one of the ruin-like watchtowers on the Unesco World Heritage site. Airbnb was fitting it out with a four-poster bed, endless cushions, romantic candles and everything.

Alas, Chinese authorities said they hadn’t approved this night-to-remember and it wasn’t in line with their conservation plans for the wall, while others wondered why a US corporation like Airbnb thought it had the moral right to exploit it for PR purposes anyway.

Airbnb sniffed there had been “an agreement in place” for a “residential lodging event” before cancelling. This cultural boundary was going to stay intact.

Next up: win a trip with Airbnb to spend the night in a floating hotel room above the Great Barrier Reef. No, sorry, they have actually done that one already.

Properly bad ideas are united by their origin in the minds of people who truly believe their idea is a good one

In need of some alcohol to cope with the travails of work, children, slow walkers, social media or all of the above? Why not settle down to The Handmaid’s Tale numbed by its special line of branded wines?

Dystopian tie-ins

This multimillion dollar, all-shade drama is enough to drive anyone to drink, so for marketers at producer MGM, an alcoholic tie-in must have seemed like the next delightful step. After all, there’s nothing distasteful about naming a Pinot Noir or a Cabernet Sauvignon after characters who are victims of repeated, systemic rape, abuse and mutilation. It’s totally unremarkable to adorn the bottle labels with their subjugated silhouettes, then describe the wine inside as “seductive” and “beguiling”.

Wait, it turns out there is a problem with all of that. The Handmaid’s Tale wine collection: not available at any good off-licences, or anywhere anymore. Likewise, Bristol Dry Gin’s “Novichok” 75 per cent vodka range, described as “no laughing matter”, was off the market almost as soon as it arrived on it after the distillery admitted the timing of its release “may have lacked sensitivity”.

Airbnb hits the wall: The Californian company’s cancelled Great Wall of China contest must have seemed like a great idea on paper. Photograph: Wang Zhao/AFP
Airbnb hits the wall: The Californian company’s cancelled Great Wall of China contest must have seemed like a great idea on paper. Photograph: Wang Zhao/AFP

It seems to have thought that as former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had recovered from being poisoned by Novichok in March, it was fine to reinvent the toxic nerve agent as a vodka brand to “lighten the mood”. It wasn’t, and not just because two more people in Britain had subsequently come into contact with the nerve agent, one of them fatally.

Bad ideas like these are distinguishable from deliberate controversy courting, permanently hostile corporate identities, botched responses to unexpected public relations crises and hard-to-anticipate but still unimpressive gaffes.

Properly bad ideas are united by their origin in the minds of people who truly believe their idea is a good one, even a great one. They are then seized upon by bosses limbering up to take the credit for their amazing creativity and dynamic thinking.

Mastercard must have assumed that, as its campaign was philanthropic in nature, it was immune from criticism

Bad ideas are success stories on the cusp of being recognised for their genius right up until the first devastating feedback, at which point everybody shakes their head and wonders why they couldn’t see what wretched ideas they really were all along.

Hunger games

Enter Mastercard. We’ll donate 10,000 meals to the UN world food programme to fight childhood hunger and malnutrition every time Lionel Messi or Neymar score a goal between now and March 2020, said Mastercard, ahead of the World Cup. Why not feed starving children if you can afford it instead of playing this sick game, said everyone else.

No backlash-to-the-backlash was recorded. Instead, Mastercard was shamed into declaring it would donate a flat two million meals to the world food programme instead, which looks safely higher than any combined tally that Messi and Neymar can rack up on the pitch.

Mastercard must have assumed that, as its campaign was philanthropic in nature, it was immune from criticism. It’s not the first time or even a particularly rare instance of the size of a charity donation being determined by chance. But what made its effort so gross – “the worst marketing I’ve ever seen,” tweeted former England striker Ian Wright – was the specific images of suffering that it conjured up.

Every time a goalkeeper dared to save a Messi or a Neymar strike, it was possible to picture 10,000 children going hungry. Possible overrule for offside? The fate of the world’s most vulnerable people would hang in the balance while the video assistant referee was consulted. “This seriously got through the different levels of management, and you all said go ahead,” said Wright.

That’s the cunning, insidious power of the bad idea. They’re so close to being good ideas, and yet so, so far away.