Controversial creative: It’s time to stop favoring reputation over results

It was January of 2016, and the Yukon Government of Canada’s communication team had just launched a new public awareness campaign intended to increase vitamin D consumption. The end result shed light on an alarming trend in communication practices: the harmful effects of creative conservatism.

While vitamin D consumption may seem trivial to many, in the territory’s near-arctic geography, the amount of sunlight per day can drop to a staggering low of six hours, causing a significant decrease in natural vitamin D intake for all residents. If allowed to drop for too long and to low enough levels, this vitamin D deficiency can cause a multitude of major health issues, negatively impacting the wellbeing of the territory’s people and economy as a whole.

So, what happened that has me raising the communication red flag? An unintended reference to male genitalia in the campaign’s creative headline.

Actually, I should be more specific, as it isn’t the genital reference that concerns me. Instead, it’s the reaction to this reference that makes me question the true motive of the decision makers involved. You see, once the humorous reference hit the public airways, it set off a storm of backlash and criticism over how those involved could have approved the message, how they could have been naive enough to not “get” the reference and how the government of the territory could allow for such an embarrassment to happen. This “public humiliation” grew so large so quickly that the campaign was pulled after just one day.

Unfortunately, amid all of this controversy, those condemning the ignorance of the campaign and those hastily trying to protect reputation forgot to stop and ask an unbelievably simple, yet critical question: Was the campaign working?

Controversy gets attention

Oddly enough, among all of the articles and commentaries I found online capitalizing on the controversy, I couldn’t find a single piece that spoke to the results (or even questioned them). So I decided to go to the source and contacted Pat Living, the director of communications for Health and Social Services that led the campaign, and what she had to share was unexpectedly disheartening. While formal research was never conducted, anecdotally the campaign was an unequivocal success, with pharmacies all over the territory selling out of their vitamin D stock almost instantaneously while struggling to maintain inventory for weeks to come.

Vitamin D consumption not only increased, but it did so at a rate and speed no one could have predicted. Yet, due to a desire to save face, one of the most successful public awareness campaigns was shut down after just one day.

Perhaps it was the general public’s rather benign perception of vitamin deficiency that kept everyone from questioning the results. But what if this campaign decried smoking or drunk driving: Would the public’s reaction and the government’s response have been any different? I would suggest it wouldn’t.

Is it worth the risk?

In a very simple and, admittedly, hypothetical thought experiment, I asked a colleague whether they would run a “quit smoking” campaign with the headline “It’s time to stop f–ing smoking!” if results showed a statistically proven increase in smokers quitting. Almost immediately, my colleague replied “no,” because the headline was offensive and the results weren’t worth the risk.

I then asked what the risks were. Was it offending parents whose children saw and learned the f-word? Was it the reputation of the organization running the campaign? Was it the media’s potential unwillingness to run the placements? My colleague responded that it was a mix of all of these and potentially more.

However, when I asked whether they could argue that any of these risks independently or altogether were greater than the value of the lives saved, they admittedly said no, that ultimately, saving lives was more valuable. So why is it that they still wouldn’t run the campaign?

Fear and humiliation are strong human emotions that can drive us to make less-than-rational decisions. And it is because of this that I believe decisions like the termination of the successful vitamin D campaign occur. Ultimately, we as communicators allow emotions to irrationally misplace value (reputation over results), and the consequences can be greater than we think.

Oddly enough, I would suggest that while this occurs in all areas of creative communication, it exists more so in cause-based marketing (including the vast majority of government communications) than it does among consumer-based marketers (where brands seem to throw more creative caution to the wind). Take for example recent campaigns by the NYC Health Department and Equinox Fitness Clubs and it’s easy to see the difference. Unfortunately, this should be the exact opposite, as one could argue that the results generated by cause-based marketers (the improvement and saving of lives) should give them creative carte-blanche where reputation always takes a backseat to results.

As marketers, it is our duty to steward the businesses we serve. To protect, preserve and enhance both the reputation and results entrusted to us. That said, we must recognize our fear-based tendencies to favor the former over the latter and risk a little “egg on our faces” if it means delivering greater results. So, instead of trying to provoke further embarrassment, I’d like to applaud Pat Living for a job well done and hope that the rest of us can someday achieve success at a similar level.

Written by David Lazarenko for CW Magazine.