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Tastelessness In Advertising

UK furniture store Habitat’s foray into the world of social networking crashed onto the rocks of tastelessness when it was shown to have used Twitter’s hashtags feature to advertise its products.  That’s certainly annoying and less than impressive but when these hashtags included Iran (which is being used to highlight the terrible events going on in Iran) the boundaries of taste had been shattered and steamed past.  Habitat stood accused of trying to use the events in Iran to get more people to visit its site.

Tiphereth wrote an excellent article showcasing a case study of how not to use Twitter.  Starring Habitat.  It wasn’t long before the story picked up more media coverage: Yahoo, BBC, Guardian, Telegraph, Index On Censorship, The Register, BrandRepublic, Marketing Week, Retail Week, eConsultancy and Furniture Today to name a few.

There are lessons to be learned here.  Once Habitat explained how these postings came to happen in the first place.  Which their intial explanation didn’t mention.  Was an external consultancy or agency responsible?  Was a member of Habitat staff responsible?  Whichever (and people want to know because they felt offended at the apparent lack of ethics) damage to Habitat’s brand and reputation has been done and would continue until a fuller explanation was forthcoming.

Which it duly was in a comment further down the page by Habitat’s press office:

In response to speculation, we would like to clarify – this was not done by an agency. The hashtags were uploaded without Habitat’s authorisation by an overenthusiastic intern who did not fully understand the ramifications of his actions. He is no longer associated with Habitat.

Ah, the “O” word.  Using “overenthusiastic” or “overzealous” to try and justify wrongdoing is always a sign that someone has seriously messed up and/or got things wrong.  “Overzealous policing” has become a euphemism for Police overreaction.  Then of course we have Phorm’s famous “over zealous” editing of their Wikipedia article.  Someone went too far and got picked up on that.

This highlights an area that organisations need to be very aware of.  When people are assigned to public facing duties they need to be trained and made very aware that the things they say and do are a reflection on that company and have an effect on that company’s public profile.  Even more so when dealing with internet presence.  Once it’s on someone’s screen it can easily be saved and passed around.

Bad news always travels faster than good news.

So where did the training and awareness process fail at Habitat?  The “overenthusiatic intern” lacks Clue and perhaps a level of ethics but Habitat itself should accept that it has failed in a very public and humiliating way.  Habitat needs to publicly acknowledge that there are lessons to be learned here.  After all, it isn’t rocket science.  We’re back  to apologising, what it should mean and how sometimes an apology is actually meaningless again.

But this isn’t the first time someone has thought of using terrible events as a promotional tool.  I doubt it will be the last.  Step forward Phorm CEO Kent Ertugrul in an interview with the Washington Post:

“The problem for newspapers is that a story headlined ‘Two Dead in Baghdad’ isn’t very product-friendly,” said Kent Ertugrul, chief executive of Phorm, a behavioral targeting company working with British newspapers. “But if you know who is looking at the page, that’s where the opportunity is.”

I’ll leave you to make up your own minds about that quote.  Personally I think it speaks volumes.

In response to speculation, we would like to clarify – this was not done by an agency. The hashtags were uploaded without Habitat’s authorisation by an overenthusiastic intern who did not fully understand the ramifications of his actions. He is no longer associated with Habitat.
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