The Art of the Fail: Why attention is the only currency that matters

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Bad publicity is harder to come by, no matter how hard you try.

A Burger King ad that aired last week tricked voice activated Google Home devices to read aloud the Wikipedia entry for the Whopper. Just minutes later, internet pranksters had added dubious and disgusting ingredients to the sandwich’s description. A few hours after that, Google quietly blacklisted the spot. It looked like the short-lived activation was a failure.

But that night, a new version of the ad ran on late nite shows, again triggering voice-activated devices in homes across the country, and sparking conversations among the digerati about the creeping intrusiveness of technology.

Pepsi was savaged for a head scratcher of a spot featuring Kendall Jenner as the last, best chance for peace. But nearly half the people who watched the ad liked the brand more afterward. "And 32 percent of Americans said the ad made them more likely to buy Pepsi products, versus 20 percent who were less likely," researchers added.

Yeah, that Pepsi ad might have actually worked.

In the cold reality of the post-Obama era, "bad publicity" is increasingly hard to come by. Riding ‘round-the-clock cable news coverage, Donald Trump tripped over his tongue and his tie, past multiple bankruptcies and right into the White House. Cheetos sales are still riding high despite becoming the butt of SNL ridicule.

Maybe, as every panel and pundit tells us, audiences crave more authenticity, even if that manifests as incompetence. Maybe they’re developing a tolerance—even an affinity—for failure, that most human of characteristics. But one thing hasn’t changed: Attention is still the only currency that matters.

Burger King’s stunt was by definition niche marketing. There are probably fewer than a million Google Home devices in the marketplace, and only a small proportion of those would have been active and in the vicinity of a television playing the Burger King commercial during the short window the voice hack was working. Trying to trigger more than a negligible number of devices would have been a foolish goal. Instead, Burger King and its ad agency partner David Miami were trying to make noise.

Much of that noise was echoed back as outrage or apprehension. The 15-second spot has more dislikes than likes on YouTube. The tech sites that got wind of the ad before it went live soundly panned the idea.


"The development community has been ripping it apart," said Winston Binch, chief digital officer at Deutsch North America. "But it’s also put a lot of questions out there about privacy and put the brand in a really interesting conversation that’s all about IoT" and internet-enabled devices.

That’s a conversation that’s been happening (see: relevant XKCD) long before Burger King weighed in. But thanks to breathless coverage from privacy hawks, the chain has guaranteed it gets mentioned in every scholarly debate or online flame war about smart devices between now and the singularity. Whether or not Burger King actually has something valuable to say about the issue, doesn’t it seem like it does?

And the subsequent "punishment" by Google adds cachet and notoriety. "The word of mouth and PR and ripple effect they’re getting from a ‘failed’ prank are probably more impressive than they would get if it just succeeded alone," said Jarrod Moses, founder and CEO of NY-based agency United Entertainment Group.

Of course, Burger King is an old hand at this kind of cultural disruption. Facebook wasn’t happy about "Whopper Sacrifice," a 2009 app that let fans unfriend a total of 237,000 people in exchange for coupons for Whoppers before the social networking site shut it down. The idea for the stunt grew out of a desire to explore the new phenomenon of digital-only friends, said Binch, who ran interactive production at "Whopper Sacrifice" creator Crispin Porter + Bogusky at the time. "Stunts have their place, particularly when they’re geared toward generating conversation."

The app unceremoniously notified the dumpee on their Wall for everyone to see, which rubbed many viewers the wrong way. But many Facebook users thought it was funny, and years later the consensus is positive.

Unfortunately, controversy doesn’t just benefit those who can artfully tap into the zeitgeist. Despite seeming like it was written after completely missing the point of the "Saturday Night Live" Cheetos spoof, Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad was probably successful at increasing positive brand awareness. A study of more than 2,000 people found that 44 percent of viewers "had a more favorable view of Pepsi after watching the video," the most common response.

It’s tough to say how many people actually watched the spot, because Pepsi pulled it April 5th, but a YouTube channel run by fans that reposted it has racked up 8.8 million views. What if Pepsi had ridden out the social media storm for a few more days? Their very own SNL spoof might have pushed that number to absurd heights.

No brand or public figure exemplifies exactly how far brand awareness can take you than Donald Trump. Adoring fans always tuned it, but his onstage antics, malapropisms and insults drew the eyes of not only enraged foes, but fence-sitters and the apolitical. Civic rubberneckers waited to see what he’d do next, ignoring the 16 other Republicans in the race. He bested the other contenders in a vacuum.

No matter how negative his coverage, it was better than being ignored like his opponents. A marketplace of ideas requires alternatives, and being the only brand in the spotlight is as good as having a monopoly.

It’s good to be loved. It’s fine to be hated. Just don’t be forgotten.

 @ihsiensherwood