How marketing campaigns can go wrong

It seemed like a great marketing idea. Then it backfired. The reasons can be studied, interpreted, and used to improve.



It was supposed to be a public service announcement, promoting an app to discourage binge drinking on campus. It helped college students who drank too much to cut back. It also encouraged a subset of college students to drink more.


So what went wrong?


To Dr. Brian Cugelman, a senior behavioral scientist at the Toronto-based Behavioral Design Academy, “what went wrong” here is a good example of a “backfire” — an ad campaign that delivers an unintended consequence, sometimes bad. Learning from failure is a good thing, but that won’t work if a mistake is swept under the rug.


Cugelman had to approach marketers who made mistakes in order to document and study them. He could get the data, provided the marketers were not named, he said. Nobody wants to admit they made a mistake, especially if they work in an office with a blame culture. That made researching marketing backfires a challenge.



Enter the Matrix


“From my experience, people often believe that they can design addictive technologies by simply gamifying their app, or layering on some social pressure,” Cugelman wrote in his article, “How Psychology Can Damage Your Web Sites, Apps and Digital Marketing”. “Without doubt, these principles can work in the right context, but the problem is that without practical or scholarly experience, professionals risk misunderstanding the conditions that can influence the effectiveness of these principles; how different principles combine; or how things can go dreadfully wrong.”


A campaign can have a positive or negative outcome and have intended and unintended consequences. Brands expect campaigns to produce intended, positive outcomes. Campaigns can also produce unintended, positive outcomes. But the worry comes with the unintended negative outcome — the backfire — which can have low to high likelihood of happening, with minor to major severity.


A backfire can take several forms. Simply copying a method without understanding it can produce a mediocre message that wanes over time. Or it can mean overselling a benefit while hiding the drawbacks in the fine print. It can cause people to reject or oppose the ad’s message. It can open a brand to ridicule and parody. It can be the wrong message sent to the wrong audience.


For a more detailed analysis of backfires, check out “Persuasive backfiring: when behavior change interventions trigger unintended negative outcomes”, co-written by Cugelman with Dr. Agnis Stibe of MIT Media Lab.


Tinder for the backfire


Misunderstandings and misperceptions are fuel for backfires. It comes down to how a person interprets a message, Cugelman noted. Again: “Messages often backfire because they go to the wrong audience.”


For example, take a high-end product that relies on social status as part of its pitch. Social status can be part of a social dominance hierarchy, so sending such “a message to the wrong tribe” can come across as a put-down, he explained. One does not try to sell high-end sports cars to hippies.


Bad data can be a starting point for bad messaging. “Unless you are working from your own database, you will be depending on third-party data,” Cugelman said. Data secured from other sources may not always be clean. “[Data] will not tell you the soul of the individual.” He said. Demographics can help tailor a message. Psychographic data is okay, but marketers don’t know what to do with it. “There is a constant struggle for data worth analyzing.” He said.


Data alone will not prevent backfires. There is no “either/or” choice between data and creativity, which Cugelman labeled as a false dichotomy. “You need a little bit of both.” Data will give you an understanding of parameters, while “creative thinking fills in the gaps,” he said.


“Assume misinterpretation always happens,” Cugelman added. “You can go out with some egg on your face. It’s acceptable.”


Sweeping it under the rug


You can’t learn from a marketing backfire if it does not happen. Here culture can affect the likelihood of a backfire, in different ways and at different levels.


The most direct way is a deficient office culture or corporate culture. In a setting where mistakes are penalized or stigmatized, marketing backfires are simply swept under the rug. “Normal people have done their share of marketing mistakes,” said Cugelman. But mistakes will never lead to “lessons learned” if they are covered up. “If you have a blame culture, you will always have problems.” He said.


For example, a marketing agency that fosters a “cowboy culture” that does not promote psychological safety will probably suffer backfires that go unreported, Cugelman noted. Learning from mistakes will be easier in an office culture that does promote psychological safety, has a flat hierarchy, and does not elevate the manager’s opinion or knowledge above all others in the room.


Then there is diversity, but again, this has more than one meaning. Here Cugelman flagged neuro-diversity — staffing with people with predispositions differing from the norm.


He also gave the example of trypophobia — a fear of many small holes or bumps tightly spaced together. (This new anxiety disorder was spotted as a recent Internet trend.) Show an ad promoting an Aero Chocolate Bar or an iPhone (with its closely spaced camera lenses) to a person on the team with this phobia, and their reaction can flag a potential backfire.


 “You can’t feel an emotion if you do not have the predisposition,” Cugelman said. “In some cases, managers should go out and build psychologically diverse teams.”


Marketing has its risks


Marketers can’t prevent backfires altogether. But they can mitigate the risk of one happening. Cugelman outlines some helpful approaches:



  • Make sure your team has psychological safety, so they are free to speak if they have any concerns about a campaign.
  • Conduct a post-mortem of the campaign, to see what can be improved. Be willing to talk about the problems. Discuss the backfire — figure out what is not working and double-down on what is.
  • Develop hypotheses and test them with data. “There is no better antidote to the cowboy culture,” he said.
  • Pivot. If you are not achieving success with an approach, do something else. In the past, this has actually been stigmatized.

In the end, marketing is an iterative process of continuous improvement. But only a safe office culture, and a willingness to learn from when things go wrong, can allow a firm or a team to go down that path — and at least temper the backfire problem.



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About The Author










William Terdoslavich is a freelance writer with a long background covering information technology. Prior to writing for MarTech, he also covered digital marketing for DMN. A seasoned generalist, William covered employment in the IT industry for Insights.Dice.com, big data for Information Week, and software-as-a-service for SaaSintheEnterprise.com. He also worked as a features editor for Mobile Computing and Communication, as well as feature section editor for CRN, where he had to deal with 20 to 30 different tech topics over the course of an editorial year. Ironically, it is the human factor that draws William into writing about technology. No matter how much people try to organize and control information, it never quite works out the way they want to.

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