By Alex Salkever
As head of public relations for the venerable Kentucky liquor company Brown Forman, Phillip J. Lynch helps burnish the Jack Daniel's and Southern Comfort brands. When he received an e-mail last March with a digital image of a Southern Comfort billboard that had been altered to read "Liquid panty remover," Lynch took it for the prank it obviously was. He matter-of-factly replied to the sender, a colleague at another liquor company, that Brown Forman would never use such a slogan.
But what had clearly been intended as a joke quickly took on a life of its own as the image raced across the Internet through thousands of computers. It was posted on comedy sites and quickly became part of a constellation of offensive ad parodies -- albeit with a chilling difference: "At some point, the fact that it was a hoax and a joke was lost, and people began to think it was a real billboard. We started getting postcards, letters, phone calls, and e-mails from people saying how can you run such a terrible ad," recalls Lynch, who responded to each complaint with a letter or e-mail explaining the situation.
As Corporate America embraces advertising images and slogans that would once have been considered improper for public consumption, mirroring television programming, it's little wonder the public is starting to get fooled by risqué parodies. And, as the folks at Brown Forman can attest, that poses increasing challenges to protecting a brand name in an age where e-mail makes worldwide image distribution nearly instantaneous. "It has been a very eye-opening example of a firestorm that can be created on the Internet with no one source and no way to learn the origin," says Lynch.
The "liquid panty" image eventually ended up in the editorial offices of Bitch, a San Francisco-based fringe feminist magazine. Bitch, which bills itself as the "Feminist Response to Pop Culture," published the image in its June issue along with Lynch's e-mail, address, and fax number. That set off a torrent of foul-mouthed missives from dozens of women across the country. Some took personal potshots at Lynch. Others called for a boycott of Southern Comfort. And 10 women from the Domestic Violence Collaborative of Jackson, Ohio, awarded Lynch the "De-evolution of Women's Rights Snake Award." Bitch published a contrite correction six months later and has stopped using reader submissions of digital images.
Though Lynch believes the parody hasn't noticeably affected liquor sales at Brown Forman, which has $2.1 billion in annual revenue and counts Southern Comfort as its No. 2 profit center, the widespread circulation of the altered image still troubles him and his bosses. "It impugns the integrity of the brand and the company," says Lynch. "It's impossible to even guess the number of people that may have seen it on the Internet. If they thought it was true, they surely have a lesser opinion of Southern Comfort." The company plans a postmortem on the matter sometime this month.
The incident should serve as a stark warning for companies that view the Web as a marketing tool and not as a double-edged sword (see BW Online, 1/02/01, "Harnessing the Power of Buzz"), especially because of the rising tide of parodies making the rounds on the Internet. Made easier by digital-image software such as Adobe's Photoshop, these spoofs have elevated art à la Mad magazine to standard Web fare.
Witness the rogues' gallery at hacker site attrition.org, where dozens of such digital parodies are posted. They include a picture of a slumping liquor bottle with the slogan "Absolut Impotence," nude photos of adult-movie stars reclining under the slogan "Simply Porn" with Palm Pilots placed in strategic locations, and a riff on eBay, "eday," which claims to offer "the dumbest ---- on eBay.com, every day of the week."
Ironically, more advertising agencies are relying on the very same Web-centric consumers who create parodies to create innovative advertising campaigns. For example, the wildly successful "Whassup" Budweiser campaign has spawned a spate of fan sites where the faithful create their own versions of the popular spot showing guys drinking beer, watching football, and riffing on the catchphrase. "The old model of advertising, which is throw it up on the wall and see what sticks, is over. The new way is to encourage people to react to it," says Doug Jaeger, the interactive creative director at advertising firm TBWA\Chiat\Day New York.
For now, parody ads remain a small concern for many big brands. But that could change as the Internet becomes the ultimate branding weapon deployed by millions of Web surfers equipped with scanners and caustic wits. "It's very much the Wild West out there. The Internet is a vast and ever-expanding platform and landscape," says Ianni, who suggests that in the future advertising agencies not only will have to create campaigns but monitor them closely to see that they don't take ugly turns for the worse.
To be sure, Southern Comfort, Nike, or Coke hardly need fear that they might end up decimated on the Internet when parodies spin out of control. But in a slowing economy when every fraction of revenue stream counts on Wall Street, even subtle negative influences on brand images that reduce sales at the margins could cost companies disproportionately. That's important to consider in an era where brand is everything -- especially on the Internet.
Salkever covers Internet security for Business Week Online
Edited by Beth Belton