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When Ad Campaigns Go Wildly Wrong: Retaining Your Reputation And Customers In The Aftermath

Every year, Force Media Group sends out more than 30 million pieces of promotional mail for auto dealerships around the country. In just about every case, the campaigns go off without a hitch. Cars get sold, customers feel good about the experience and dealers are happy.

But a glitch in one batch of 50,000 letters for a promotion in New Mexico in July went wildly off mark and ricocheted right into the advertising agency’s reputation. Instead of one $1,000-winner in the scratch-off promotional campaign, there were 2,000 $1,000-winners. It didn’t take long for a long line of happy winners to start forming in the Roswell Honda showroom to collect their money.

“The dealer called and said, ‘This is really strange,’” said Force Media’s Jim Fitzpatrick. “The first guy that walked in happened to be the winner. I said, ‘Hey, that’s great. He scratched it off and was the winner.’ Then the dealer called me 10 minutes later and said he had 10 winners, and they were all $1,000 winners.”

That’s when Fitzpatrick knew he and the dealership had a big problem on their hands. It took awhile, though, before the full extent of the damage could be assessed.

Fitzpatrick found out quickly what had gone wrong. The printer had pulled the wrong file for the print run. By moving fast, Fitzpatrick was able to intercept a stack of 20,000 letters at the post office. Regardless, more than 2,000 “winners”—and a legion of local and national media groups—turned up at the dealership.

Fitzpatrick moved fast, dispatching two vice presidents to camp out at the dealership for two weeks so they could explain, one-on-one and as many times as it would take, what had happened. That meant taking the time to talk to the media as well, as everyone from the local newspaper to CNN showed up to do a report on the promotions disaster.   

The Roswell case is an extreme example, but just about every agency that handles direct mail knows what it’s like to see a campaign misfire. For dealers, those experiences underscore the need to be constantly prepared to grapple with a public relations nightmare. And they also highlight some simple steps that can help prevent any damage to either their reputation or their bottom line.

“I’ve had it happen to me,” said Mike Chumney, president of Chumney & Associates. “Once we sent out keys and the lock malfunctioned and the wrong key opened the lock. The lock mechanism got stripped.”

But there was also a backup method in place to verify the winner’s name, so the dealership wasn’t on the hook to everyone with a key.

To make sure you’re completely protected, said Chumney, make sure you have the right legal disclaimers on every piece. Mistakes happen, but because it’s a flub instead of a scam, neither the dealer nor the agency has to pay off to every would-be winner.

“In the rules and regulations, you need to spell out that there’s only one winner in the event of some mistake,” said Chumney. “Any good disclaimer will protect you in that regard. The marketing company should take care of it, but buyer beware.”

Most states also have gaming laws that need to be adhered to as well, said Chumney. But a good attorney skilled in the law regarding promotions can spell out the ways that a dealership can easily protect itself from any liability regarding a mass of unexpected winners.

There’s also another lesson here for dealerships: Learn to make sure someone carefully proofreads every piece that goes out with your name on it.

You have to scrutinize every promotional campaign before you authorize a release, said Stephanie Hendricks, spokesperson for the Direct Marketing Association. “Ultimately, I think it would come down to demanding final approval, making sure that you see the final piece.”

Of course, steering clear of legal liability and taking all of the necessary precautions still won’t guarantee that you won’t be subjected to a blast of terrible publicity and a mob of angry people that you had once hoped to convert into lifetime customers.

“All sorts of things happen in direct mail pieces,” said Fitzpatrick. “All across the country, there’s always a direct mail piece with something in it—a misprint or a typo or something like that—that can get a dealer in hot water.”

That’s when the company you keep can make all the difference in the world.
“As a dealership, you should partner on any kind of direct mail campaign with a direct mail company with a high level of integrity,” said Fitzpatrick. Because he counts himself as a supplier with real integrity, Fitzpatrick’s Force Media took the bull by the horns and willingly took the heat for the screw-up.

For Force Media, the campaign to manage the fallout has already run up about $70,000 in bills. There was the cost of dispatching company executives to Roswell as well as three full-page newspaper ads explaining what happened and apologizing for the mistake. Then the agency put up $25,000 for a special drawing with new winners and a host of Wal-Mart gift cards to hand out as well.

At the end of the day, said Fitzpatrick, by getting out in front of the problem rather than running and hiding, 97 out of 100 people who thought they were winners eventually went away with a shake of their heads and a generous understanding that mistakes happen.

“We got in front of the bus very quickly,” said Fitzpatrick. “Therein lies the importance of partnering with the right direct mail company. What’s perceived as a low cost piece could open you up to liability if you don’t have a conscientious supplier.”

These kinds of promotional disasters don’t have to end badly. That dealership in Roswell? Maybe all that publicity wasn’t so bad after all.

“The dealer reported a very, very strong month,” said Fitzpatrick.

 Vol 5, Issue 9



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