JWT India and Ford: the real costs of stretching boundaries

JWT India's Ford ad mock-up

Last week’s kerfuffle surrounding JWT India, unauthorized mock-up ads and car maker Ford that Shel and I discussed at length in this week’s episode 697 of the FIR podcast may have subsided in terms of news headlines in the mainstream media, but it’s the stimulus for a great deal of commentary and opinion online about the ethics and morality of what JWT India did, the reaction of Ford and the consequences so far.

Briefly, this is what happened.

JWT India, Ford’s ad agency in India, created three mock-up print ads for the Ford Figo, a hatchback car based on the Ford Fiesta. The most controversial shows former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in caricature flashing a peace sign from the front seat of a car that has three curvaceous women tied up and gagged in the boot.

Another shows a caricature Paris Hilton winking while the Kardashian sisters are gagged and bound in the back of the Figo. And a third portrays Formula One driver Michael Schumacher in caricature behind the wheel of the car with rivals Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso tied up in the boot.

In each case, the ad’s tag line is “Leave your worries behind with Figo’s extra-large boot.”

The mock-ups weren’t intended for public use. But the creators at JWT India uploaded the concept artwork to the Ads of The World website where they were public.

Reaction has been near-universal outrage across the social web, and widely reported in the mainstream media in many countries. Ford and JTW apologized in public statements. One swift action taken by JWT India was the firing of the creative team behind the stunt and axing Bobby Pawar, chief creative officer and managing partner at JWT India.

Ragan’s PR Daily has a good summary of events and how Ford’s PR teams responded to it; in my view, their actions prevented a kerfuffle becoming an actual crisis – a key point I made in the FIR podcast report I mentioned earlier.

Is it a big deal and firing JWT India’s employees was absolutely the right thing? Or is it all a storm in a tea cup with over-reactions everywhere by Ford and others?

Opinions are actually quite divided.

The first commentary I read that clearly fell on the side of storm in a teacup was written for AdAge.com by Vishal Mehra, a digital strategist at Bite’s New Delhi office.

Lighten up! Ford, others are overreacting to Figo fiasco, he says:

[…] what struck me the most was the mass sentiment of shock and horror over the firings. In the creative community in India, most people view this as an overreaction and believe that those creatives did not deserve to lose their jobs.

[…] Overreactions from a typically conservative Indian brand may have been expected, but coming from an American brand like Ford? The reaction to us has seemed oddly uptight for a brand headquartered in the land of free speech.

Yes, the agency and its people messed up. But why couldn’t the client show some faith and character? Yes, the agency was trying to win awards out of scam ads. But the ad industry thrives on stretching boundaries. This definitely isn’t the first time and won’t be the last time that adventurous and ambitious folks have done things true to their nature.

It’s an interesting perspective that highlights for me how understanding business and cultural differences in different countries – where in India, creating such stunt ads with the sole purpose of winning awards is commonplace – is important. Yet does that make Mehra’s perspectives valid? His post attracted a few comments, but none supports his views.

Media headlines

Mehra talks about stretching boundaries, a point that’s discussed and amplified in a really good assessment of the Indian advertising-culture landscape surrounding so-called “scam ads” in The New York Times on April 1:

[…] Controversies arise in India because of a difference in sensibility between the Indian advertising industry and international agencies, executives said. “International advertising people play it a lot safer,” said the creative director at another WPP company in Mumbai, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to be seen criticizing his peers. “They wouldn’t take as many risks as a developing country like India as they are often more aware of the political implications,” he said. In India, “we lack the knowledge about international icons, we don’t know where to draw the line – here you’ll see people wearing Hitler t-shirts. We don’t always understand the implication of what we are saying and doing,” he said.

It’s thin ice to walk upon when you work for an international brand as your client – and when the agency you work for is also an international brand – where the values of that brand perhaps aren’t clearly understood by agency employees in some markets. That’s not good at all, which in my view increases the likelihood of something bad happening, like this kerfuffle.

My good friend Eric Schwartzman posted an equally “What’s the big deal?” commentary to the FIR Community on Google+ yesterday in which he argues that consumers would hardly care about the kerfuffle and it wouldn’t affect Ford’s sales, adding:

[…] It doesn’t impact the company’s core competency, which for +Ford Motor Company  means safety, reliability and service. So even though it tasteless and insensitive, it’s only worthy of an eye roll.

Eric’s post drew a stream of vibrant opinion disagreeing with him, and a clear response from Scott Monty, Ford’s Global Digital and Multimedia Communications Manager:

[…] As one person who was on the front lines for this, I can tell you that Ford’s reputation was damaged over the course of the last couple of weeks. Not only did we see complaints from owners on our Facebook pages and directed to us on Twitter, indicating that they would not be buying a Ford vehicle again, we also fielded calls in our customer service unit from disgruntled customers expressing dismay in Ford, expressing their disgust and indicating they had bought their last Ford.

So yes, sales could have very much been affected.

Not to mention the dozens of similar emails we fielded via our investor relations group, with concerned investors expressing their intention to sell Ford shares as a result.

[…] What concerns me the most personally is the far-flung impact that will not be known for some time and that perhaps a future team will have to deal with as these images retain their Google juice. It’s very likely that we’ll have to explain this ad nauseam for many years to come.

From what I saw of some of the comments Scott talks about, these were mainly from US consumers. The important point, though, isn’t really one of geography: in this age of instant word-of-mouth online by people who are globally connected no matter where they are, critical and negative opinion can be seen, added to, shared and amplified at will, at any time.

As PR Daily quotes him:

[…] “It’s really a matter of having a well-integrated team—a globally coordinated effort—rather than just assuming folks in another region are going to handle it,” he explained. In years past, an issue like this wouldn’t have spread globally the way that it did, Monty added.

Which adds to the key elements to consider when you’re doing your “What if?” scenarios in planning communication strategy, especially anticipating how you’d address a crisis.This was one of the points Shel and I discussed in the FIR podcast earlier this week – how do you plan for events such as this?

My thinking is that you have to assume something like this can, and probably will, happen somewhere. That’s when you call upon your community across the social web, the people with whom you have built up trust, goodwill and rapport over time, people who will defend you and support you. You might call them fans, brand advocates or champions.

Whatever the label, they are people of influence and reach who will bring measured, independent, trustworthy and credible voices to the conversation and tell your story. They are the most invaluable connections you can make that will prove their value when you really need it, forming a significant plank in your overall communication platform.

What’s your view on all of this? Over-reaction, or more than just an eye roll? Do add your thoughts in the comments, or join the conversation in the FIR Community on Google+.

Related posts:

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Heather Yaxley

    Neville – one of the Future of PR sessions that I taught at London College of Communications this year was called Edgy & Ethical. This case falls squarely into that category, as well as reflecting all the challenges regarding globalisation (global vs local sensitivities) and the difficulties of varying expectations of different publics. Scott Monty is right in terms of the online legacy of such incidents, and you are also right that the immediate effect is short term. Another of those modern conundrums.

    Ford has to protect its reputation long-term, and its sales in the short-term. JWT needs to maintain its client relationships, whilst encouraging the creativity of its young talent, who will increasingly reflect the edgy online world in which they have grown up.

    As Paul Holmes predicted back in 2007, individuals need to possess what he called ‘rare and perhaps even contradictory qualities’ such as the good judgement that comes with age and experience alongside knowledge of new media opportunities. I’d sum that up with a reminder that just because you could do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Comments are closed.