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Was Cadbury Naomi Ad a Rogue Attempt to Go Viral?

Naomi Campbell

by Kenneth Rudich

In the last post, “When Cadbury, Naomi Campbell and Racism Collided,” I used the Bliss advertisement story to illustrate the danger of semantic noise in marketing communications, rather than join the debate about whether the ad was racist.  I specifically shied away from offering any personal opinion about the story itself.

Upon further reflection, however, and now that a Google search on this subject can stretch across as many as 47 pages of content, my thinking has taken on an additional twist – which is to say, I’m now also questioning the extent to which Cadbury seemingly went for creating this story, even if it wasn’t exactly the one they actually wanted.

the vetting process

Contemporary marketing is a different sort of beast than it was just a short time ago.  Concepts like organic, social and viral have radically altered its nature.  This is especially true for mega-sized corporations like Cadbury, where they’re expected to mine every potential opportunity they can to get their product noticed in an otherwise cluttered world of services and goods.

With that said, one can only imagine what went on during the vetting process for the Bliss ad.  After all, they had to know they were going to be walking some kind of fine line.

Let’s start with the premise that the people who make top level decisions for a hugely successful company like Cadbury are probably pretty intelligent.  After all, they have to be in order to climb the corporate ladder, often described as a pyramid – meaning: the higher one goes the tougher the climb.  It’s a Darwinian environment with a cranial bend.

Even if we were to assume a few addle-brained folks somehow bubbled up by mistake, it’s unlikely they alone carried enough authority to give the campaign a green light all by themselves.  The approval process was imaginably rigorous, and it would have passed through several stages and across dozens of desks before any final determination was made.

Numerous folks in the Legal Department alone must have carefully pored over it, given the risk factors involved.  They probably were braced to defend a lawsuit from Ms. Campbell – one they would no doubt call baseless — before the ink dried on the first printed ad.  Anything less would have been sheer incompetence, considering her reputation for being tightly wound and occasionally ballistic.

During all of this, it’s conceivable they overlooked the possibility of it backfiring in the way that it did, to the point where they might be accused of engaging in racism.  Or maybe they regarded it as possible but unlikely or remote, given the professional guidance of the legal counsel and the unsympathetic nature of the person lampooned.  One way or another, it doesn’t seem like they were too terribly concerned about it going awry.

At the same time, it would not surprise me if they became a little too enamored with the prospect of it going viral, and that they were actually banking on Ms. Campbell herself to be the catalyst for making it happen.  If she were to rant and rave about the ad in a publicly open display, it would theoretically garner greater exposure for them and their product while making her look, well, like a diva.

In that light, it’s easy to see how an ad with just enough bite to ruffle her feathers might be seen as a winner from a risk and reward analysis standpoint.

the concept of group think

Perhaps something known as “Group Think” was also involved.

Wikipedia defines group think as a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people.  Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints.

Scholars have studied group think since 1972, and they point to both the Bay of Pigs Invasion and Pearl Harbor as classic case studies.  Maybe this incident will yet become another example for psychology researchers to study, insofar as nobody at Cadbury that we know of seemed to object to this plan.

So they set out to see if they could make it so.  Only thing is, Ms. Campbell turned the tables on them by characterizing the ad as racist.  As one writer put it, what else could she do – accuse them of being mean to her?

when noise begets noise

The fact is: it did go viral.  The media picked up on it, the blogosphere ran with it, and the discussion forums sprang into life with an unusual buzz.  It fueled opinions like a tornado spits out debris – fast and furious.

The opinions themselves mostly fall into one of two camps — those who believe it’s inappropriate at best and racist at worst; and those who find it innocuous.

But here’s the important part.  Neither side seems able to assemble a truly decisive case for either Cadbury or Ms. Campbell.  Instead, it’s more like a stalemate or stand off – with a he said, she said quality – in which neither are victims and both are perpetrators.

The truth is, nobody reaches a high ground when everybody’s trying to gain it at the expense of integrity.   

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