Batman Wins Condom Contest, Showing Social Media Perils

Holy prophylactics, Batman!

In a recent online marketing campaign, Durex asked Facebook fans to vote on what city should get SOS Condoms, a service meant to allow amorous -- but unprepared -- couples to click on a smartphone app for a rush delivery.

The voters chose Batman, the capital of an oil-rich and conservative-Muslim province in southeastern Turkey, and social media experts say the contest was almost certainly decided by Internet pranksters. Batman received 1,577 votes, besting Paris and London, according to the contest’s Facebook page, which has been dormant since the two-month promotion finished in April.

The snafu for Durex, owned by Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc, illustrates the risks for brands that embrace social media. Marketers expect to devote 22 percent of their budgets to such campaigns over the next five years, compared with 8 percent today, according to a survey from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

“Any brand that wants to remain engaged with its audience has to have a social media presence,” says Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at researcher EMarketer. “But anytime a brand engages consumers in social media, there is the opportunity for abuse.”

Just ask McDonald’s Corp., which in January 2012 paid to sponsor the Twitter hashtag #McDStories, seeking feel-good posts about eating at its restaurants. Instead, commenters made jokes about obesity and dog food, and the company ended the promotion less than two hours after its debut.

Super Bowl

And a Qantas Airways Ltd. campaign on Twitter in 2011 that let consumers write about their dream in-flight experiences was swamped with thousands of negative posts about the airline after the carrier became embroiled in a labor dispute.

Mondelez International Inc. fared better during the Super Bowl in February. When the game was delayed due to a lighting failure, the ad agency behind Mondelez’s Oreo cookies wrote on Twitter, “Power out? No problem” and included a link to an ad that said, “You can still dunk in the dark.” Although Mondelez hasn’t said whether Oreo sales got a boost, it reports the post was retweeted more than 15,000 times.

“That made brands sit up and say, ‘Wow,’” said EMarketer analyst Williamson.

Durex, the world’s best-selling condom brand, might have avoided the hijacking if it had allowed voters to choose from just a handful of cities rather than letting them name anyplace they wanted, according to Mark Stone, strategy director at London advertising agency Recipe.

Hacker Troubles

“In a digital environment you want to make sure you have precautions in place to prevent any disruption, as hackers are always looking for an opportunity to cause trouble,” said Stone, who has worked with other Reckitt Benckiser brands such as Veet hair removers and Scholl foot-care products. “There needs to be a contingency plan.”

Ceasing the campaign won’t cost Reckitt Benckiser much, as social media marketing is inexpensive compared to print or television advertising. Still, Durex would likely have benefited from a publicity boost if it had been able to expand the campaign to bigger cities around the world.

Acquired in 2010 as part of a 2.5 billion-pound ($3.8 billion) deal for SSL International Plc, Durex has fueled the performance of Reckitt Benckiser’s healthcare unit, its fastest-growing division. An increased focus on products like condoms and painkillers -- more profitable than Reckitt Benckiser’s laundry detergents -- has helped boost the shares by about 36 percent over the past twelve months, besting the U.K.’s benchmark FTSE 100 index. The stock, which fell 2.4 percent to 4,582 pence in London today, now trades at about 18 times earnings, versus 14 times a year ago.

Couple Hugging

The Batman vote represents a rare slip-up for Durex, which has grown steadily over the past three years thanks to new products, deeper expansion into emerging markets such as China, memorable ads, and increased engagement with consumers online.

One global campaign last year allowed consumers to create and vote for designs for a new Durex box. The winning submission -- an image of a condom drawn to look like a couple hugging -- was incorporated into Durex’s new packaging. The effort attracted 50,000 designs and 1.4 million visitors to the contest’s website in six weeks.

“We really upped our innovation, our creativity,” at Durex, Reckitt Benckiser Chief Executive Officer Rakesh Kapoor told analysts in April.

The company says SOS Condoms, available in Dubai for a short time last year, won’t be offered in Batman or anywhere else. Andraea Dawson-Shepherd, a spokeswoman for Reckitt Benckiser, said Durex’s social media efforts “will move on to a new sphere.”

’Robin’s Role’

In 2008, the mayor said the producers of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight” used the name without permission -- though the city was previously called Iluh and only became Batman (from nearby mountains) in the 1950s, two decades after the Caped Crusader first appeared in comic books.

Condé Nast Traveler has described Batman as a “sprawl of nondescript cement buildings on a treeless plateau of no real historical interest” whose primary attraction for tourists is its name. Locals aren’t impressed with this latest notoriety. Winning the Durex campaign “is a big joke,” says Abdurrahman Temelli, a sustainable development consultant from the nearby city of Mardin. “I’m Kurdish, and I know how we are, so this is impossible. Our culture is religious.”

Impossible or not, “Batman needing a condom delivery is pretty funny,” said Jennifer Bonhomme, a digital advertising strategist who works on healthcare brands. “I mean, what is Robin’s role in all of this?”

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