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Newsjacking: Bold, brash and incredibly risky - how the advertising equivalent of Russian roulette (sometimes) conquers the world

It's called newsjacking, and it’s advertising's latest attempt to cash-in by responding to news events in real time

It's bold. It's brash. It can change a company's fortunes or forever junk it into the dustbin of ridicule.

It's called newsjacking, and it’s advertising's latest attempt to cash-in by responding to news events in real time, according to a new book published tomorrow.

Get it right and campaigns can go thermonuclear: reaching millions of eyeballs and, brands hope, stratospheric sales figures. But misjudge the mood and the campaign can detonate with collateral damage that includes global ridicule and a publicity backlash.

It has been described as the adman's equivalent of “Russian roulette on steroids”.

When Wikileaks dumped thousands of diplomatic cables into the public domain, it wasn’t just a victory for free speech. As memos leaked out of Washington, copywriters in Karachi coined a catchphrase for a sanitary brand that got picked up all over the world. Its message? “Wikileaks. Butterfly doesn’t.”

Tomorrow sees the launch of a new bible co-written by a British creative director Grant Hunter.

Newsjacking, The Urgent Genius of Real-Time Advertising, purports to be the ultimate guide for those looking to looking to catch the rolling news agenda.

"Ideas catch fire within 48 hours of the story breaking," it advises. "With this in mind you must strike while the iron is hot. You must be prepared to ride out the popularity of a story, resigned to the knowledge that any reward for your efforts might be short lived.”

Some British brands have already tried. When Olympic officials mixed up the Korean flags last year, Specsavers moved quickly to cash-in.  “Our line lends itself brilliantly to mistakes and we knew we could capitalise on it,” says marketing director Richard Holmes.

Its ad, featuring the two flags and its notorious line: “should have gone to Specsavers”, yielded unparalleled levels of awareness, at one point even trumping the Olympics opening ceremony on Twitter.  “When advertising catches the cultural tide it can be enormously powerful with returns of investment that traditional advertising may never have allowed,” said Mr Holmes.

But greater than its success is its startling capacity to backfire.

In 2011 US fashion brand Kenneth Cole who sought to capitalise on the euphoria during the Arab Spring. It tweeted: “Millions are in an uproar in Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” Mr Hunter's book offers to assist. “It’s not right for every brand. It’s imperative that they are genuine, relevant, adding to the conversation.

If it looks like blatant commercial exploitation then prepare for an instant social backlash.” But Richard Huntington, strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi describes newsjacking as “today’s favourite flavour”. “Every brand is trying to understand how to be listened to and be a part a wider conversation. For those that do there are dividends to be had. But anyone endeavouring should proceed with caution.”

Three events that worked

Felix Baumgartner’s Space Skydive

Before his space skydive last October, Felix Baumgartner had been delayed on several occasions. Waiting for the go-ahead, Kit Kat sent up a four fingered balloon to the edge of space with its infamous instruction: “have a break”.

Prince Harry’s Las Vegas misdemeanour

Less than three days after the photos of a naked Prince Harry at a Las Vegas party appeared online, Lynx responded with a parody of the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ posters. It’s message? “Sorry Harry if it had anything to do with us”.

The Royal wedding

An online spoof of the Royal wedding featuring 15 lookalikes, including Prince William and Kate dancing to the East 17 song, ‘House of Love’  gripped the country in the run-up to the wedding.

The film launched on YouTube two weeks before the nuptials, was watched 27 million times and saw phone sales rise by more than 40 per cent.

Three events that didn’t

Superstorm Sandy

American Apparels decision to email customers in the height of the America’s worst storm last year was entirely misconstrued. 

With more than 30 people dead, some six million without power, and damage to the tune of an estimated $20 billion, ‘it’s hardly a surprise that news of the “Superstorm Sandy Sale” rankled.

The Colorado Shootings

Fashion house celebrity boutique fell short the morning after one of the deadliest shootings in US history in the town of Aurora when the Celebrity Boutique fashion house Tweeted: “#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress ;)”

Fears of another Thai Tsunami

Last year as fears of another devastating Tsunami spread across Thailand, KFC purported the perfect tonic. Its Facebook ad instructed Thais to hurry home and monitor earthquake news with a bucket of its chicken.