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April 17, 2011

Avoiding the Blindingly Obvious – A SPN Exclusive Article

Take a look at this image.

This advertisement is something of an Internet legend at this point. Now, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Intel isn’t actually racist. But just look at the image and try to imagine it in any other context. There is very little else that six black gentlemen bowing to a white person can evoke in most peoples’ minds. There is the obvious connection to speed, but even a single image of the sprinter – after all, the same guy has been Photoshopped in six times – would have been fine, especially by itself. Instead, the obvious athleticism of the “sprinters” works against the picture, because it’s six very strong and muscular looking men doing homage to a nerdy office type.

The thing is, this should have been painfully obvious. It certainly was to consumers. The moment this thing was shown, the backlash was incredible. It actually prompted Intel to pull the ad and apologize for the obvious blunder. The public figured it out, the Internet still laughs about it and, all in all, the whole thing raises the question of just what in the world happened. It’s pretty clear that either Intel didn’t do a focus group test, or that their focus group is just as insulated from the real world as the people who came up with the ad in general.

Advertising isn’t the only part of branding, of course, but this incident in particular brings up an issue that is important to all branding efforts. Specifically, it involves getting away from the idea of marketing, and getting to know your market.

Markets are made up of people, and their value to a branding campaign is the word-of-mouth they can provide. Be it genuine face-to-face discussions or a video going viral, getting people to talk about a product is the best way to make it a success. Conversely, it’s also the best way to kill a product.

Take a similar, more recent incident. Sony was attempting to market its PSP handheld gaming console. Given the recent success of low-budget, clever independent productions, the company decided to give this style a try. They started a guerilla marketing campaign, spray painting graffiti style images of kids holding and playing PSP handhelds. Then they began a campaign about their new, white-framed model of the device, and attempted to portray it with billboards of a black woman and a white woman fighting. Finally, they had an actor pose as a ‘random’ user of the PSP and promote it on video sites such as YouTube.

As the satirical humor site pointed out, these efforts all fell flat. The graffiti efforts were picked up as blatantly obvious corporate marketing from the get-go, the billboard catfight advertisements were ridiculed as bizarrely racist – incidentally, what is it with advertisements being accidentally racist? – and the video series was picked up on as corporate shilling quite quickly as well. Sony finally got the hint and went back to more traditional advertising efforts, moving out of guerilla marketing almost completely.

Again, these efforts scream of a disconnect from the target audience that should have been fairly obvious. Even a brief test marketing to the public would probably have revealed the flaws in each of Sony’s efforts.

Part of it lies in an inability for some branding efforts to take their audience seriously. The market is made of people, not robots. You can’t throw a switch and get a result. People have varied and subtle reactions to things, and if you make an idiot of yourself they will notice. You have to give your market credit if you want to succeed.

In particular, the graffiti and YouTube ads were the most patently condescending in this sense. They were outright lies; the company tried to make it look as though grassroots support for its product had spilled out into urban and online culture. Sony was caught out almost immediately, and suffered appropriately for it. To its credit, Sony did own up and apologize, saying it had gotten the message. But the lesson definitely should be clear for everyone: The Internet has made it much harder to lie to people. If you don’t respect your market, they are not going to respect you.

So the take home lessons are:

1) Don’t skip the all-important step of marketing your product to a smaller test audience before you go public with it. Ask people their honest advice about things, preferably people outside your immediate market as well as those you intend to market it to. A diversity of opinion can be a rewarding return.

2) Respect your market’s intelligence and don’t try to be more clever than they are. One company only has so many minds, and cannot in the end outwit the omni-mind of the world wide web.

Enzo F. Cesario is an expert on blogs and social media for business and co-founder of Brandsplat, a digital content agency. Brandsplat creates blogs, videos and social media in the “voice” of our client’s brand. For the free Brandsplat Report go to or visit our blog at