Belvedere vodka recently posted an ad on its Facebook page that cheekily declared, "Forget the water cooler. All offices should have a bar."
But the brand may be reconsidering that sentiment after it whipped up a controversy with a social media ad that suggested some severely impaired judgment in its marketing team. Belvedere has gone silent since having to apologize for a post last week making light of sexual assault.
The ad, posted on Facebook and Twitter, showed a smiling young man grabbing a frightened-looking woman under the headline: "Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly."
Besides the obvious harm in making a joke at the expense of victims of sexual assault, the incident also raises questions about the approval process behind social media ad campaigns. Many believe it offers a case study on how not to handle the backlash when that approval process fails.
Marketers who specialize in social media were baffled about how the Belvedere ad could have been posted in the first place.
Some social media agencies may be given carte blanche to post comments on behalf of a brand on Facebook and Twitter in response to customer comments. For advertisements, however, it is standard procedure to map out a client's social media posts on a planning calendar anywhere from two weeks to months in advance. Ad campaigns go through multiple reviews at every level of the agency, and with the client's marketing team.
"It's a pretty stringent process for us … we write content, word for word, what is going to go up on the Facebook wall and send it to the brand team for approval," said Matt Singley, chief executive officer of social media marketing firm Singley + Mackie, Inc. The Los Angeles-based firm works with large clients such as Microsoft and AT&T. "There was obviously something missing in this [Belvedere]process."
Simon Davies, president of Toronto-based social media marketing firm MThirty, said his firm also goes through a series of meetings and approvals with the client before anything is posted on the social Web.
Clients demand such careful control of their social media presence, in fact, that MThirty creates scripts of possible comments it might post to help a brand administer its social media accounts, such as responses to potential customer comments. Clients approve any prospective messages before the conversation even starts.
"This [Belvedere ad]should never have happened, on any level. It should never have been executed, or approved, or posted to Facebook," Mr. Davies said. "For community management to be that hands-off is hard to believe."
Belvedere's parent company, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, appears to demand similar levels of control. 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."
Belvedere has not explained how the ad came to be posted in the first place. It was posted on the afternoon of March 23 and removed the same day. The company posted an apology, followed by apologies from Belvedere's senior vice-president of marketing, and then from its president, Charles Gibb. It also made a donation to an anti-sexual violence organization, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network ( RAINN), and said it was "investigating" how the ad was posted.
(Belvedere did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did its global digital-marketing agency of record, New York-based Last Exit. Mission Public Relations, which was handling inquiries on the subject, would not confirm which agency was involved in producing the ad or any other details.)
"I didn't think the apology was very good … to me that looked like trying to buy their way out," said Judy Gombita, a Toronto public relations professional who focuses on social media and crisis management. "They should have just come clean and said, 'This is what happened,' however it happened."
Social media marketers were also puzzled by the delay in Belvedere's investigation, since anyone with administrative access to its Facebook page would be able to identify where the post came from.
"It's whitewashing," said Richard Carmichael, principal at Toronto agency Frank Ideas and Execution, which does online and social media work. "It would be easy enough to figure out who made the change based on [Internet] protocol address."
Nor does it appear that Belvedere had permission to use the image in its ad; the photo of the man and the woman is a still photograph from an online comedy video made by a group called Strickly Viral, which posted a tweet last week complaining about the stolen image. Strickly Viral did not respond to requests for comment. The use of content that is not proprietary to Belvedere could suggest a hacked account, but if that were the case, a clear PR strategy for Belvedere would be to make it clear it was not responsible for causing the offence.
While the ad was taken down quickly, social media campaigns are impossible to erase entirely. Copies circulated online, causing many to call for a boycott of the brand.
"In the old days, you could have just gone to the corner store and burned all the newspapers," Mr. Davies said. "But now it completely belongs to the public, and the public isn't happy about it."
Last Exit has handled Belvedere's digital marketing strategy around the world since July, 2010, including social-media marketing and communications. According to its website, a major focus of its work has been to boost Belvedere's presence on Facebook and other social media. Belvedere now has more than 900,000 "likes" on Facebook.
But a robust social media presence has its downside, as companies struggle to keep control of the conversation about their products – even if they have not made inappropriate jokes. Companies such as Rogers Communications Inc. and McDonald's Corp. have both struggled recently with promoted Twitter conversations that were taken over by disgruntled customers bashing the brands.
Other advertisers have stoked anger online by misinterpreting the edgy atmosphere of the social Web; this is not the first time violence against women has been used for marketing purposes. Last summer, an Edmonton hair salon was criticized for an ad that it posted on Facebook showing a woman with styled hair and a black eye, with a man standing behind her holding an expensive necklace. The slogan was "Look good in all you do." The salon apologized "if survivors of abuse interpret this ad to make light of any abusive situation," but otherwise defended the ad as artistic expression.
Belvedere was far more apologetic after last week's mishap. "The content is contrary to our values and we deeply regret this lapse," Mr. Gibb wrote in the Facebook apology. But many consumers were not mollified.
"These people are disgusting and their products should be boycotted forever," commenter Bennie Holmes wrote in response to his apology. "Apology not accepted," commenter Sandra Ann wrote. Others wondered if it might have been a publicity stunt by Belvedere. But those with experience in the field disagree.
"There's humour, there's edginess, and then there's this," Singley + Mackie's Mr. Singley said. "The adage that all publicity is good publicity no longer applies in the social media world."
Belvedere has issued a deep apology for an offensive post the Company put on its Facebook and Twitter pages on March 23, which were quickly pulled down that same day.
Charles Gibb, president of Belvedere Vodka, called the post "completely inappropriate and contrary to the values of the company."
"I would like to personally apologize for the offensive post that recently appeared on our Facebook page," he said. "It should never have happened, and the company will take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that it never happens again. We deeply regret this lapse."
Belvedere has made a generous donation to RAINN, the largest U.S. anti-sexual violence organization, and has committed to working with RAINN on key projects. RAINN posted on its Facebook site: "We got a call from Belvedere Vodka's president, who was profusely apologetic about an offensive Facebook post … He stressed how much it was contrary to his values and what Belvedere stands for, and that he feels awful about it. He offered to make a generous donation to RAINN to support our work to help victims of sexual violence and educate the public. Nice to see a company that not only undoes its mistakes but looks for a way to do good afterwards."