Just as we were all settling down with a glass of mulled wine to enjoy the festive season, budget retailer Poundland has thrown the cat among the partridges with one of the more controversial campaigns of the year. And the intentionally confrontational and arrogant stance it has taken to the backlash against its ‘naughty elf’ social media ads puts profit before propriety.
The festive season can make or break retailers. I know this, as about ten years back I established and ran an ecommerce company. About 60% of our entire year’s profits came from the six or seven weeks prior to Christmas.
It puts into perspective why the major department stores put £millions into their Christmas advertising campaigns (I’m looking at you, John Lewis). And faced with that sort of investment, how are you supposed to compete? Well, by doing something distinctive and different.
Creating Cut Through at Christmas
That’s what I guess went through the Poundland marketing department’s collective heads when they came up with the ‘naughty elf’ social media campaign. Conceptually it’s clever – use the infamous Elf on the Shelf character and portray him as a maverick to give you licence to be a little bit controversial in order to create shareable content that gains cut through.
So far, so good. It suits the brand personality and stands against the overly saccharine Christmas campaigns of the big retailers.
But when it comes to execution however, Poundland’s campaign took a wild veer off to the left. Because among some already pretty low-brow content being pushed into the world (“free moustache rides” and a game of strip poker with the line “joker, joker I really want to poker”) was this ‘gem’:
I have problems with this on so many levels it’s not true.
But before we delve into this seasonal treasure chest of bad taste, let me give you a little background as to why I’m in a position to comment.
From Down-to-Earth Strategy…
Approximately five years ago, while I was still working in agency land, I devised and established Poundland’s social media tone of voice. The company was a client of the agency I worked for and had been struggling to gain traction on Facebook and Twitter. As Head of Digital it fell to me to sort things out.
After research into who Poundland’s customer base was and with a strong nod to the company’s values, I came up with a strategy based around being ‘cheeky’. This translated into fun, tongue-in-cheek responses to tweets (think James Blunt but less rude!) and content that put the chain’s hero brands front and centre.
It worked. Almost overnight Poundland started to grow its online share of voice, and that translated into more visitors to its 500-odd stores. The first Christmas we implemented the new strategy saw the retailer gain lots of plaudits from social media users and marketers alike for its down-to-earth, fun and non sales-led approach.
It worked because the self-deprecating humour was edgy but innocent.
That, however, was about five years ago. Things change and it would be naive of me to think that the strategy I devised was still in place now. I can see elements of that tone of voice in the latest Christmas campaign…and yet it’s a long, long way from the cheeky, ‘best mate down the pub’ persona I devised. So where to start?
…to Base Level Misogynistic ‘Humour’
Well first off, the new campaign (and the post I included above in particular) is content of nothing more than the lowest common denominator type. After years of trying to make Poundland ‘a part of the weekly shop’ among all demographics, it would appear that it’s now trying to appeal to those with the intelligence and sense of humour of a 12-year-old.
Except that last time I checked, teabagging was part of no 12-year-old’s frame of reference.
It really is base level stuff. And on top of that, the misogynistic nature of some of the posts is jaw dropping. At a time when the news agenda has been dominated for months by stories of sexual impropriety, and when the issue of sexual consent has been addressed endlessly not just on social media (#MeToo anyone?) but on the political agenda (yes Trump, this does apply to you), there is little excuse for perpetuating such views.
The Poundland campaign belies either a sickening lack of respect for the pulse of popular opinion or an astounding lack of knowledge thereof.
But wait, THERE IS an excuse according to Poundland’s marketing director! In a statement following outcry on social media that the news media picked up on, Mark Pym said he was “proud of a campaign that only cost £25.53” that “connects with our shoppers”.
What? Seriously? As Kate Hartley, co-founder of digital media crisis simulation company Polpeo quipped to me: “That teabag is the kind of connection I don’t want with anyone’s shoppers, thank you!”
And it wasn’t just social media users who reacted with disbelief to the ad. Twinings, the unfortunate brand depicted in the image, complained via Twitter:
We are aware of an image that is circulating that misuses our product. This is to confirm that we had no involvement in this and that it is obviously not reflective of our brand values.
— Twinings Tea (@TwiningsTeaUK) December 21, 2017
Now there are those out there in PR and communications land who feel that this was all a big publicity stunt by Poundland and that perhaps even Twinings were in on the act: get everyone talking about you in the build up to Christmas. Well yes (obviously – it’s a marketing campaign), and no.
Although since I worked with them the company has been sold and there are undoubtedly new management and marketing personnel involved, it would be a 180 degree turnaround for this backlash to be planned and intentional. Poundland was always very risk-averse as a client, and although that’s obviously not the case here, to go into this throwing caution to the wind just does not fit with the company culture I knew.
As such, I don’t believe that Poundland has the cojones to develop a campaign to intentionally upset people in a bid for publicity. There are very few brands or marketers who do.
Poundland is no stranger to controversy. When I worked on the account, half of the job of the PR team was to keep the company OUT of the media. And there was more than one occasion I was called upon to help manage a potential crisis situation on social media. So to suggest that it’s now gone out of its way to court controversy does not, in my experience at least, ring true.
Arrogance Over Propriety
That said, it’s certainly not backed away from this particular issue and has taken a very combative and rather arrogant stance. Neither the press statement nor the social media accounts have made any attempt to apologise for upsetting people, despite the Advertising Standards Authority having received over 50 complaints claiming that the ad was vulgar, offensive and unsuitable to be seen by children (using, as it does, toys).
Alongside the creative aspects of some of the ads being completely derogatory to women, it’s the arrogance with which it has handled ‘teabaggate’ that leaves a bad taste in my mouth (pun intended).
Everyone makes mistakes, and I think we all have the capacity to laugh things off if the offending brand corrects them. That could have been the case here: ‘Brand messes up, brand apologises, brand gets publicity, we all laugh, the world moves on’.
But the smug nature of the press statement is something to behold.
First, it seems to suggest that the ability to knock out a marketing campaign for a bargain basement price makes outdated misogyny perfectly reasonable. And second, it’s written in such a way as to convey Poundland’s ‘value’ corporate mission, which you can either call clever or crass.
Kate Hartley sees loads of press statements from all types of company when carrying out Polpeo’s simulations. On Poundland’s response to the outcry, she says: “It has been unrepentant, posting the same image without the Twinings box as a “spot the difference”, and calling the backlash a “storm in a teacup”. A lot of people have been saying the campaign doesn’t fit the family image of the brand. But as it’s been retweeting someone with the Twitter handle ‘Fuck It, Yule Do’, I’m not sure how much it’ll care about that.”
Is All Publicity Good Publicity?
The blanket media coverage Poundland has received will undoubtedly have the company’s PR team rubbing their hands with glee, and you can build a strong argument that few who shop at Poundland will stop going there because of the ads. “Will it affect the brand’s performance? Probably not, sadly”, says Kate. “And a lot more people know that you can buy Twinings at Poundland today than they did yesterday.”
And that’s a bit of a shame, to be honest. Mark Pym’s statement makes it very clear that the campaign was devised with “our shoppers” in mind. He says it “connects” with them. Which can only lead one to the belief that “our shoppers” are ignorant misogynists with the intellect of a Christmas tree and a frame of reference stuck firmly in 1974.
I’m not sure if I was a Poundland customer I’d be too happy with that association.
Having spent years successfully building up a customer base among the more educated people of the nation, it appears that Poundland now couldn’t give a crap about their views, evidenced by a refusal to even acknowledge them let alone make an apology.
Personally, I find that depressing. Maybe it’s symptomatic of the post-Trump, post-Brexit world we now inhabit. Maybe it reflects the saturated nature of the media where the only thing that really generates any publicity is being controversial purely for the sake of it.
I don’t know, but to Poundland, as The Pogues once sang: “Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last”.