The dateline on this story is not a mistake. The year is 2012, and a prominent brand has made a joke out of sexual assault in its advertising.
Belvedere vodka drew an outpouring of derision on social-media websites after it posted an ad on Facebook and Twitter on Friday. The ad showed a young man smiling as he grabs a woman from behind. The woman has a frightened look on her face and appears to be trying to get away. The text of the ad read: "Unlike some people[,]Belvedere always goes down smoothly."
The ad was removed by mid-afternoon and the company posted an apology. "We apologize to any of our fans who were offended," messages on Facebook and Twitter said. "…We continue to be an advocate of safe and responsible drinking."
The controversy is yet another illustration of how quickly a company can be held to account on social media for mistakes it makes – and how impossible it is on the Internet to erase those mistakes. A writer for a weekly paper in Washington, D.C., among others, saved a picture of the ad that circulated online, attracting further criticism and vows to boycott the brand.
"It is quite possibly the most offensive thing I have seen in a long time," Florida beer writer Sean Nordquist wrote on Twitter in response to Belvedere's apology.
"FAIL. Never touching your product ever again," a Twitter user under the name @TheTomasRios wrote in another reply.
"This is not an apology," Facebook user Carri Shook wrote on Belevedere's fan page. "You haven't even begun to take any responsibility."
Belvedere, owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, did not respond to requests for an interview, but sent a prepared statement on Friday night.
In the e-mailed statement, Jason Lundy, senior vice-president of global marketing for Belvedere, said that the ad had also offended people at Belvedere, but did not explain how it came to be approved for posting. Midday Saturday, the company announced on its Facebook page that it had made a donation to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), a nonprofit anti-sexual violence group. RAINN confirmed the offered donation in a post on its own Facebook site on Saturday.
The firm Mission Public Relations, which was handling all enquiries on the subject, would not confirm which agency was involved in producing the ad, or the exact times that it was posted and taken down.
"It should never have happened. I am currently investigating the matter to determine how this happened and to be sure it never does so again," a prepared statement from Belvedere president Charles Gibb, posted to the company's Facebook wall Saturday afternoon, reads. "The content is contrary to our values and we deeply regret this lapse." Belvedere declined further requests for an interview.
Belvedere's digital marketing agency, New York-based Last Exit, also would not comment.
Last Exit has been Belvedere's global digital agency of record since July, 2010, handling its digital marketing strategy around the world, including social-media marketing and communications.
"It's horrendous. … It's beyond a misstep, it's negligent," said Matt Singley, chief executive officer of L.A.-based social-media marketing firm Singley + Mackie, Inc.
He questioned the perception that the ad might have been the error of an individual, either at the ad agency or the company itself. He said the large brands with which his firm works, including Microsoft and AT&T, require several levels of approval before an ad is released. "Unfortunately I think a lot of people saw this and gave it the thumbs-up. But how could anyone think this is acceptable?"
Richard Carmichael, principal at Toronto agency Frank Ideas and Execution, which does online and social media work, agreed that it is likely "somebody had to approve this."
"It is getting harder and harder to make things go viral; unfortunately, some exercise poor judgment in pursuit of YouTube infamy," he said. "Unbelievably bad taste."
The implications of a vodka manufacturer making light of sexual assault are problematic: research in the U.S. repeatedly suggests that about 50 per cent of sexual assault cases occur after alcohol consumption by either the perpetrator or the victim. In 2010, Edmonton police and a local sexual assault centre launched an advertising campaign targeting alcohol-facilitated sexual assaults.
"Nice to see a company that not only undoes its mistake but looks for a way to do good afterwards," RAINN wrote in its statement about the donation.
Last Exit has boasted of its efforts to increase Belvedere's presence on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Its challenge for the account is to "properly utilize social media channels for to increase [sic]fans and interactions," according to a summary of the business on the agency's website. The agency boosted Belvedere's Facebook interactions by 50 per cent in the first year it handled the account. Belvedere now has more than 900,000 "likes" on Facebook.
In its "missions and values" statement , LVMH states: "Group companies exercise stringent control over every minute detail of their brands' image. In each of the elements of their communications with the public … it is the brand that speaks. Each message must do right by the brand. In this area as well, there is absolutely no room for compromise."