On Advertising: Why Microsoft ran scared from a Family Guy

According to Euripides, you can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps.

According to 21st-century marketing lore, you can tell a lot about a company from the company it keeps. So advertisers are becoming increasingly aware that the editorial environment in which their ads appear says an awful lot about the values of their brand.

Take Microsoft. Less than a month ago it announced (with appropriate levels of hysterical excitement) that it was going to sponsor a TV variety show produced by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of cult cartoon series Family Guy. It was one of those stories that got the rest of the marketing industry scribbling notes. Not only was this a bold initiative by Microsoft, but it represented a real marketing first.

The idea was to create an original piece of branded entertainment, mixing live-action with animation and guest appearances, branded throughout by Windows. So there'd be segments on how easy the new Windows 7 is to use or how fast it operates.

I know it doesn't sound like a bundle of laughs, but Family Guy fans would trust MacFarlane to pull it off. And it sounds like he did... perhaps a bit too well. Because Microsoft is now running scared and has abruptly pulled out of the project after discovering that (in characteristic MacFarlane fashion) the show contained some, ahem, sensitive material.

According to Variety magazine, Microsoft was traumatised by the show's "riffs on deaf people, the Holocaust, feminine hygiene and incest". Liberals criticised Microsoft for being oversensitive and weak. And for implying that their target consumers are by definition uncomfortable with anything cutting-edge, experimental, creative (presumably qualities that Microsoft was hoping to appropriate through the Family Guy association in the first place).

But leaving aside Microsoft's ridiculous naïvety in assuming that MacFarlane and his team would ever produce something anodyne and inoffensive, plenty of advertisers will have much sympathy for their stance. No big company wants to damage its brand equity by getting caught in the crossfire of editorial controversy.

We live in a consumer-empowered digital world that gives instant, amplified voice to the easily offended, and in which ordinary people are quickly mobilised behind a cause. These days a single offended consumer can work up a global fire-storm by leveraging the power of the internet; the risks for any advertiser even within sniffing distance of offensive material are higher than ever.

Last month a Facebook page was set up to demand that consumers lobby brands whose ads appeared around Jan Moir's Daily Mail column on Stephen Gately. The Facebook page urged those advertisers to withdraw their commercial support for the Mail. The speed and strength with which advertisers including Marks & Spencer and Nestlé responded to such pressure was evidence of how sensitive brands have become to consumer opinion.

Of course it's right that advertisers should seek to place their commercial messages within media environments that match their corporate and brand values. That's a key plank of advertising strategy. But there's a new danger here, too, from this heightened sensitivity to our complaining culture.

Do we really want advertisers to be part of a debate about the rights or wrongs of the editorial context in which their messages appear?

After all, advertising plays a vital role in funding the UK's relatively diverse media landscape. If advertisers are pressured into steering clear of any media environment that could possibly cause offence, a sort of censorship will result. Those media that rely on advertising revenue for their existence will be more wary (than they already are) of provoking, of challenging, of risking a backlash. Advertisers should think very carefully before they allow themselves (and their budgets) to moralise on editorial issues. As Microsoft is likely to find to its cost, in the end consumers won't thank them for it.

Best in Show - Weetabix (WCRS)

In a world of endlessly exciting cereal choices, Weetabix is the boring goody-goody on a shelf stacked with racy, sugary, crunchy, chocolatey breakfast highs. It's a brand in need of a marketing make-over. And it's just got one, in the form of a silly-funny, entertaining new TV ad from WCRS. The commercial is about a jockey who, after his horse falls at the first fence, goes on to win the race on foot. Because he's had his Weetabix, see? It's a lovely ad with a real lightness of touch that is so rare for this category. Yummy.

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