The Economics of a Lie

Bad ideas come along all too often, we see them in all shapes and sizes and they can take many different forms. Usually though they are just shades of gray between average, ordinary and pedestrian that make no impact on a consumer that cause no real harm. Their biggest crime is wasted potential or the opportunity cost of doing something properly and making a significant impact on consumers minds and ultimately the clients revenue.

Every so often though we see ill conceived ideas that are cataclysmic and create a negative sentiment towards a brand. The problem usually rests in either an average strategic idea being poorly executed in the extreme, or a horrendous idea so strategically or creatively flawed that never should have made it passed a tissue session.

Two such ideas made it to market in Australia in the last few weeks.

The first was a recent integrated campaign for Tourism Queensland. They were running an on-line campaign where consumers from around the globe were invited to apply for the dream job of becoming a professional blogger based on Queensland’s Hamilton Island. If selected, the successful candidate has the opportunity to earn AUD $150k and live rent free on a tropical paradise 5 star island, reporting on all the great things Australia, Queensland and the Whitsunday has to offer.

rism Queensland - Island Caretaker

Tourism Queensland - Island Caretaker

The agency tripped across the all not so new idea of consumer generated content, where potential candidates submit their video applications for the coveted island assignment, where the public can vote on who wins after a series of rounds and tasks that contestants undertake on the island – think Tourism meets Biggest Loser . Not so new in mechanic, but somewhat successful in generating some valuable PR and non-paid media coverage. Usually ideas like this get some interest at the start but interest wains over time as the campaign progresses. The agency reports the kick start to the campaign has been very successful with thousands and thousands of consumers interested in the role from across the globe. Well done I say for choosing a tried and true mechanic with an “ambitious” budget for the task. PR was great receiving media coverage across the globe.

What was ill conceived though was seeding the site with contrived content. To “get the audience started” the agency decided to shoot their own video application where an agency staffer posing as an every day citizen had a not so real “real tattoo” inked onto her arm as part of her application. In today’s connected society of Search and Social Networking, it took consumers and the media about 4 nano seconds to discover the fraud. While it created no real harm to anyone, it did though plant a seed of doubt in hundreds of thousands of consumers minds about the integrity of the campaign and the “brand of Queensland”. One simple, but obvious mistake of misleading consumers took the shine of what was otherwise a 6/10 creative idea, but maybe a 7/10 from an effectiveness perspective using finite funds. While everyone involved has been talking this indiscretion down, no one has stopped to count the economic cost of the bad PR and loss of trust this mistake has created. I estimate it in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Looking at the effort that went into this single misguided execution, I beg to think what could have been created with the same energy, resources and time. I’m at a loss to think though that the normal safety values on the client and agency side missed this on the way through the approval process.

Tourism Queensland - Tatoo Application

Tourism Queensland - Tatoo Application

The second bad idea though created much more of a controversy in the eyes of the creative world, media and unfortunately the world of the consumer is a campaign for Witchery. Witchery, a leading mainstream brand for woman’s fashion decided to launch a “teaser campaign” for their entry into the world of man’s fashion. A hard task at the best of times, compounded by the fact the brand’s heritage and existing success was squarely based with women. No one denies the impact required for such a task.

The agency’s answer though wasn’t the right weapon for the task. The campaign was centered around creating a modern day version of the fairy tail, Cinderella where the quintessential Eastern Suburbs girl, exchanges a glance with her unknown Prince Charming in a Sydney CBD cafe. As a once in a lifetime chance for love looks like it is going to slip through her fingers, she creates a video based site asking the public to help her track down her mystery man, who surprise surprise has left his jacket in a cafe.

Here is where it all starts to go wrong. Initially this story is leaked to the media as a genuine case trying to find love Cinderella style. After a serious of TV interviews and wider news reports, momentum builds and interest grows across Australia about a modern day love story. Bloggers & surfers visit her site in the thousands, which contains contrived wooden performances by a desperate but lovely girl trying to convince us her plight is true and enlist our help in her quest to find her man. Media smells a rat and decides to investigate the story, said media quickly finds the entire story is a lie, created by an agency to sell a line of men’s clothes using the power of influence from the brands existing target audience. Media discovers said girl hasn’t used her real name, profile created on face book isn’t real either, nor is the profile on You Tube. Which hunt commences to find which brand and agency concocted such a lie.

The good parts of the campaign:

  • Campaign used media outlets to tell a modern day love story in low cost / no cost environment through innovative approach to PR and creating buzz
  • Used existing target audience as key influencers on potential new audience ( a good mechanic if executed properly with right strategic fit)
  • Exploited insights into societal trends of using social networking environments to spread story and create further chatter
  • Drove critical mass of audience to engage with story

The bad parts:

  • This story was a lie, a lie a lie – never lie! You can’t lie in any other advertising medium, in fact depending on the product category in some cases it is against the law. How a lie could be approved by agency staff and a client is beyond me.
  • Great advertising is grounded in a human truth. A lie can never be a truth.
  • The execution wasn’t the best, the content was contrived and see through.
  • There was no insight into fashion forward men (the primary target audience) that don’t need to be, and won’t be told by their partners where to shop and what brands to buy.
  • The negative PR created about this is significant and the economic cost is high. For a brand that hadn’t launched even one product line yet the damage is significant. I believe that the lie has negatively impacted brand awareness and consideration for Witchery Man so significantly that it will be permanently off the radar of the target audience. This has probably cost Witchery tens of thousands of dollars in revenue and opportunity cost even before the product line ever hit the stores.
Witchery Man - Hoax

Witchery Man - Hoax


  1. Never lie – consumers are smarter and more nimble than we give them credit. They’ll look for the truth instantly and have it at their finger tips through Search Engines, Social Networks etc . Everyone loves a gag and story telling is the essence of any engaging campaign, just do it in smarter creative ways. The above two campaigns demonstrate a laziness strategically and creatively.
  2. Trust is everything – never, ever lose it. It is harder to earn than lose. It has been lost here in spectacular fashion and will probably take the respective brands 10 times longer to earn it than lose it.
  3. Use social & viral media with the same level of professionalism and diligence you would any other medium. Remember it is still advertising, just in a newer form and it demands more thought and rigor, rather than less.
  4. All PR isn’t good. Understand your risks and impact in financial / economic terms. Just because you get PR it doesn’t necessarily make it valuable or beneficial. What is the opportunity cost of getting it wrong? What is the cost to fix it? What is the lost revenue opportunity by losing trust from your primary target audience?
  5. Pressure check everything before an idea becomes an execution – regardless how small it may be as part of a large campaign it still needs to go through a proper filtering process strategically, creatively and in some cases morally.
  6. Don’t let Gen Y juniors completely run digital / viral / social media campaigns. Just because they are digitally proficient from a user perspective with the an eager energy for diverse campaign mechanics, it doesn’t mean they’ve got the experience, skill or judgment call to do the right thing every time. Sometimes a little gray hair is good throughout the process!
  7. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!

2 responses to “The Economics of a Lie

  1. In the Witchery case, I completely agree with you and I definitely agree that all PR certainly isn’t good . . .

    BUT, don’t you think that the whole quasi-falseness and the “oh we’ve been busted” were fabricated to increase the awareness of the campaign?

    Controversy leads to exposure, and I think this may have been the plan all along. I’m not sure how good this is for the brand, nor how it will increase purchase propensity among their target audience. That said, it does lead to far greater awareness and talkability around the campaign.

    Perhaps those pesky Gen Ys were behind the conspiracy?

  2. Ben,

    Thanks for comment, really appreciate your views.

    While I’d like to think the quasi-falseness, was part of a somewhat strategic plan to create PR & talk-ability I really think it is paying them to much credit on a post-rationalized basis.

    Also not slamming Gen-Y’ers, just think sometimes gray hair & balanced judgment is a good circuit breaker, esp if an idea has a recognized risk from the get go.



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