Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Absolut PR Nightmare

A recent controversy over a billboard campaign in Mexico is teaching numerous lessons about the Internet Age, instant communication and political correctness.

On April 4, an Internet firestorm erupted after a photo of an ad for Absolut Vodka appeared in the Los Angeles Times blog, La Plaza. The ad depicted the borders of Mexico reaching up to encompass the American Southwest, including California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, but also Nevada, Utah, Colorado and part of Wyoming.

The region roughly represents the lightly populated land mass controlled by Mexico before the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which officially ended the Mexican-American War. After the war, America paid Mexico $15 million for the land it had won on the battlefield. A few years later, with the Gadsden Purchase, it paid another $15 million for a small strip of land now in Arizona.

In the era before instant communication, the ad would never have reached American eyes, and of course, it wasn’t meant to.

It appeared in a Time/Warner-owned Spanish-language magazine in Mexico and on billboards throughout Mexico. The ad was slated to be pulled the week the controversy erupted.

The ad was produced by the ad agency TBWA Teran in Mexico City. It was a local version of an international "In an Absolut World" campaign that is meant to depict "an ideal world."

But ideal, for whom? That’s what many Americans soon began asking after the ad hit the LA Times blog on April 4. Within hours, a firestorm of protest had erupted, with hundreds of postings on that blog alone. The LA Times blog received 67,000 responses to a question asking if the ad was an "affront" to Americans. 62% said it was. The news would be reported that night and the following few days on major network news stations.

That afternoon, Paula Eriksson, VP of Corporate Communications for V&S Absolut Spirits was forced to put out a statement that hardly clarified matters. Here it is in its entirety:

"The In An Absolut World advertising campaign invites consumers to visualize a world that appeals to them -- one they feel may be more idealized or one that may be a bit "fantastic." As such, the campaign will elicit varying opinions and points of view. We have a variety of executions running in countries worldwide, and each is germane to that country and that population.

This particular ad, which ran in Mexico, was based upon historical perspectives and was created with a Mexican sensibility. In no way was this meant to offend or disparage, nor does it advocate an altering of borders, nor does it lend support to any anti-American sentiment, nor does it reflect immigration issues. Instead, it hearkens to a time which the population of Mexico may feel was more ideal.

As a global company, we recognize that people in different parts of the world may lend different perspectives or interpret our ads in a different way than was intended in that market. Obviously, this ad was run in Mexico, and not the US -- that ad might have been very different."
The release, posted on the corporate site, has received (as of Apr. 15) over 3260 comments, many expressing outrage over the ad and vowing to never drink Absolut Vodka again.

Among the comments: "When Hitler tried to change your borders, was that an issue with you?" Others wondered if it would pander to other ethnic groups "hearkening back to a time" which was "more ideal" to show the American South in Grey on a map, as it was during the Civil War.


Many others noted that the ad stoked anti-Americanism in Mexico, and promoted the "Requonquista" agenda of many radical Mexican groups like La Raza. The group and others claim the land was "stolen" and seek to re-conquer it through increased immigration and by political means.

The firestorm among those Americans concerned with our open borders was predictable, and continued unabated through that weekend, as the blogosphere (aided by
Michelle Malkin and others) spread word of the disparaging ad. The ad sparked imitations, including ones featuring Sweden under foreign control and wondering if a new "Absolut Palestine" ad would feature all of Israel and neighboring Jordan labeled as such (not likely, since Muslims don’t drink.)

Another PR spokesman for the company, Jeffrey Moran, had his email and phone number plastered all over the blogosphere, inviting direct comment. He
sputtered in one article that the ad was "based on a historical perspective on what Mexico was once. That's all." He reportedly also fielded several nasty phone calls from angry customers.

By Sunday evening, Eriksson, apparently convinced things were spiraling out of control, posted yet another apology on the corporate site:

"During the weekend we have received several comments on the ad published in Mexico. We acknowledge the reactions and debate and want to apologize for the concerns this ad caused. We are truly sorry and understand that the ad has offended several persons. This was not our intention. The ad has been withdrawn as of Friday April 4th and will not be used in the future. In no way was the ad meant to offend or disparage, or advocate an altering of borders, lend support to any anti-American sentiment, or to reflect immigration issues. To ensure that we avoid future similar mistakes, we are adjusting our internal advertising approval process for ads that are developed in local markets. This is a genuine and sincere apology."

We will see if this is enough. Clearly, the company is running scared and is terrified of this torrent of negative publicity. But this is a far better apology.

Absolut will lose (and likely has lost) tens if not hundreds of thousands of customers in the United States over this misstep.

The right move for this company is to lay low for a few months, and then try to find a way - either through advertising or public relations efforts like several full-page apologies in the NY Times (or better, the conservative Washington Times) - to overcome this and try to move on.
The lessons learned from this ad include the death of the idea that (ironically, in this context) anything said can remain within a single nation’s borders. Another good lesson would be to steer clear of divisive political issues in your advertising.

Meanwhile, American-made SKYY Vodka, in a slick and clever move, put out
a news release praising the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and speaking out "against suggestions by Absolut Vodka to disregard that treaty, as well as the joining of Texas to the Union in 1845."
"Like SKYY Vodka, the residents of states like California, Texas and Arizona are exceptionally proud of the fact that they are from the United States of America," said Dave Karraker, SKYY Vodka. "To imply that they might be interested in changing their mailing addresses, as our competitor seems to be suggesting in their advertising, is a bit presumptuous."
Now THAT is clever public relations.


Tom H C Anderson said...

Sad and ridiculous that Absolut felt they had to apologize. Overpaid and over sensitive US PR staff no doubt.


Stephen said...

Not at all. Apologizing allowed them to move beyond it and now, few people remember it.

While you weren't offended, many others were. The customer response was like a tornado coming down upon them. It was clearly a problem that needed addressing, from a PR point of view.