Context and the Power of Common Sense

Context and the Power of Common Sense

 “Context is all” Margaret Atwood once wrote. Context informs our perceived notion of truth and the world around us.

Our experiences are the filter through which we categorize and analyze events in our immediate surroundings. And since our experiences are unique, our own individual perception of truth is unique. But what does this mean for advertisers?

We all make mistakes. However, advertising mistakes are public, and a lack of discretion can result in extreme embarrassment, harsh criticism, loss of customer loyalty, and even huge financial consequences. Here are three examples of costly advertising mistakes and how interpreting the social, political and cultural context and applying some common sense could’ve prevented them:

Insensitive media placement:
I once worked on an outdoor campaign for a funeral home client. While I was putting together a media proposal, it just so happened that there was one particular board that was perfect. It was a right-hand read in a high-traffic area with no obstructions hindering visibility. Only one problem. This board was less than a mile away from a hospital. Probably not an issue for most other advertisers, but imagine visiting an ill family member or friend in the hospital and seeing a large ad for a funeral home. Needless to say, I didn’t recommend that board to the client. It’s essential to consider the context where your ad will be seen; otherwise your brand could inadvertently be perceived as being rude or insensitive.

Ignoring the current social and political environment:
On Wednesday, January 31st, 2007, the Boston Police Department and Fire Department responded to a call from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority regarding a bomb scare. Devices with blinking lights resembling characters from Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force had been placed strategically throughout the city, and many passersby were mistaking these devices for bombs. However, this was not a bomb threat, it was a guerilla marketing campaign gone wrong. In a post 9-11 world, this was not the smartest move, and the ensuing panic resulted in multiple arrests and the wasting of millions of precious marketing dollars for Cartoon Network. Especially when planning a guerilla or experiential campaign, it’s critical to consider the relevant social and political issues currently on people’s minds and how this will impact their interpretation of your advertising.

Not considering the connotation:
In the 1990’s Panasonic sought to break into the PC market and they wanted to leverage the power of an existing character to endear their product to customers. They chose Woody Woodpecker. Panasonic’s new computer was dubbed “The Woody”. As if this nickname wasn’t bad enough, in an effort to differentiate their product from their competitors, Panasonic emphasized The Woody’s touch screen capability, which they embarrassingly named “Touch Woody.” When it was brought to Panasonic’s attention, they decided to emphasize a different feature: the automated online support capability named “Internet Pecker.”

While this extreme example may be entertaining, this helps illustrate the point: when launching a campaign in a foreign market or targeted to a demographic you’re not familiar with, be sure to do your research. Understand the culture, slang, and all possible meanings of any word or phrase associated with your brand.

The common denominator in all of these cases is context. Consider where your ad will be seen, and how this could alter the way your message is received. In the case of the funeral home, their audience may have viewed their message as exploitative and offensive if they saw it next to a hospital. Understand the social and political context and how this will effect the reception of your advertising. Cartoon Network should have anticipated how the public would respond to strange electronic devices in train stations and subways, especially in an age where concern about possible terrorist attacks is at an all-time high. Understand the possible implications of your branding efforts and how the meaning will be interpreted. Panasonic would have done well to consider the possible meanings of words associated with their product naming, doing so would have helped them avoid unfortunate double entendres.

We all make mistakes, but fortunately there aren’t many ad mistakes a little research and common sense can’t help you avoid.