tasting the rainbow: sweet or sour?

People have invested many keystrokes into the recent Skittles social media campaign, and opinions vary greatly. Sweet or sour? Fair or foul?

While some reacted viscerally and negatively against Skittles’ garish social-media stream, we should acknowledge that likability doesn’t always correspond with the bottom line. Consider:
– Throughout the 1970s, Charmin spokesman Mr. Whipple would consistently poll as both one of the recognizable and most hated figures in the U.S. Charmin sold well anyway, because the product (not the pitchman) was seen as squeezable.
– One of the most admired TV campaigns of all time was Piels beer’s droll animated spots with the voices of radio humorists Bob and Ray. The campaign nonetheless failed to move product, though if you’ve ever tasted a Piels you know why.
– Bud Light ads tend to gain the highest approval ratings during the Super Bowl™ extravaganza. For several years, I’ve asked if anyone has any post-event sales data showing a spike in Bud Light sales justifying the investment. I’m still waiting.

In terms of generating buzz, Skittles certainly succeeded. One day earlier, no one was talking about the brand, now folks everywhere debated whether this ploy was brilliant or awful. If you measure media mentions as dollar figures, it was a huge hit. If it spared us from seeing one more horrid Taste the Rainbow TV ad, that would be a plus too. I suspect a quick spike in sales figures followed. But will that bump in sales — which, ultimately, convinces stockholders whether it’s successful — last? Talk to me in a month, but I suspect I know the answer.

(Some would cite the old chestnut there’s no such thing as bad publicity in defense of the campaign. The mark of an amateur, this phrase has never been uttered by anyone I know working in public relations for non-profits or higher ed, where one bad letter to the editor or inaccurate article will send managers to battle stations.)

My bigger concern is that this stunt cheapens what many of us are trying to do in social media; it makes this field appear the province of hucksters and spammers. People on the fence about joining the Web 2.0 community (and I know a surprisingly large number) will pause upon seeing headlines like Skittles campaign bombards social media. Bear in mind that one of the original appeals behind online communities involved escaping the sales pitches that saturate public life and popular culture. Sure, it was only a matter of time before the critical mass of social media would attract marketers, but on Facebook and Twitter the signal still far outweighs the noise.

Not surprisingly, the biggest boosters of the Skittles campaign were social-media marketers and consultants, those who earn their pay commoditizing the field. You can tell your clients that social media is about communication, but when every hit is seen as a dollar sign, do you lose sight of the big picture? We value ourselves as individuals making connections, not as one more market-ready aggreggate of demographic and psychographic data. The Skittles campaign did nothing to ultimately connect to us, and what was the branding statement? That they … had a social media campaign? The stunt may have penetrated our minds, but ultimately our mouths were filled with a lot more discussion than candy.


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