CoverGirl's conundrum: How to respond when your image has been defaced?

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Digital tricks turned this photo of a CoverGirl model into a statement about domestic abuse.
Digital tricks turned this photo of a CoverGirl model into a statement about domestic abuse.

Social media is circulating a CoverGirl photo that has been digitally altered to suggest the model was beaten -- a response to the brand's sponsorship deal with the NFL, where several football players are accused of domestic violence.

At one level, it's every marketer's worst nightmare. An extremely expensive ad campaign, featuring some of the industry's top models touting your brand, is defaced on social media and then widely shared. It associates your brand with supporting something that is not only awful, but staggeringly repugnant to your customers and prospects.

Procter & Gamble's CoverGirl is facing this specter because the brand is the official beauty sponsor of the National Football League at a time when several NFL players are accused of beating women.

The ad at the center of the controversy displayed a true CoverGirl ad that has been digitally altered to give the model bruises as though she had been beaten. The initial Tweet of the first version of the image — the social media community kept improving the image to make the bruises appear more realistic — asks that people boycott the cosmetics brand until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was removed from his position.

The complaint against Goodell alleges that he knew of some of the acts of abuse — including an elevator video that showed a player punching his then-fiancé so hard that she was knocked unconscious — and took no action against players until the evidence was highly publicized.

Let's get back to the CoverGirl marketing issue: What is a brand manager to do?

The first knee-jerk temptation is to call in your legal team to defend the copyrighted image and the integrity of the ad. That's not a good idea, as nothing would more quickly cast your brand as the bad guy than sending in lawyers to seemingly defend the physical abuse of women.

Is it better to ignore the social movement? Or is it possible to go against instinct and embrace the redone ad, applaud the creativity and the message, and demand that firm action be taken?

CoverGirl, in fact, came close to that last choice. It used Facebook to declare that it stood unwaveringly against domestic violence.

"As a brand that has always supported women and stood for female empowerment, CoverGirl believes domestic violence is completely unacceptable," the company said in a statement. "We developed our NFL program to celebrate the more than 80 million female football fans.In light of recent events, we have encouraged the NFL to take swift action on their path forward to address the issue of domestic violence."

Reviewing the words in the statement, there is nothing controversial in it. Support for women, denouncing domestic violence and encouraging the NFL to address the issue are safe utterances. There was no request for anyone to resign, no stated plans to make any changes in its campaigns, no direct reference to its altered ads.

But from a psychological and marketing perspective, the statement embraced the altered ad in a clever effort to get on the right side of its customers and prospects. Although it didn't address the suggested boycott, it sought to undermine any such effort by giving voice to the concerns of those customers who might have considered supporting one.

When considering how applicable this tactic is to seemingly similar marketing situations, it's important to remember that there was no accusation of CoverGirl having done anything wrong nor of having known about something bad happening and not acted. CoverGirl was simply one of many high-profile advertisers associated with the NFL — not with the NFL officials and players accused of wrongdoing.

That meant that CoverGirl had far more options. Had the brand been accused of something overtly bad — as opposed to bad by association, which is the case with the NFL — this embrace-your-attackers move would have likely not worked at all.

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