Playing “Gotcha Games” is Getting More PR Firms (and their Clients) in Trouble

Bad PR, stupid PRIt seems that the rise of social media, wherein anyone can have their say on just about any issue, has caused some PR companies to miscalculate in the publicity campaigns they’ve come up with for clients.

It’s always been a challenge to conjure up fresh ways to gain audience attention. And today, with so many consumers interacting with brands – and with each other – in the online realm, it’s become tougher than ever to dream up a PR ploy that cuts through the clutter to capture the interest and engagement of target audiences.

The best of these new PR efforts – Virgin Mobile’s “Sparah” campaign, for example – play off of the new communications techniques of the day, exploiting them for their own ends.

But for every one of those, there are more PR initiatives that get it wrong, such as the recent Con Agra (and Ketchum) flameout with bloggers that I wrote about recently.

Hosting a dinner featuring Marie Callender’s frozen dinner fare at a faux New York City restaurant may have seemed like an idea that was fresh, hip and irreverent – and very much in the realm of publicity that could go viral. But duping and dissing bloggers was hardly the recipe for getting positive results.

And now we have another PR snafu that’s making news. A woman who was targeted by Toyota in a stalker-themed publicity stunt is now suing the company for mental distress.

In a campaign that seemed to Toyota (and its communications agency Saatchi & Saatchi) so “spot on” in the brave new world of interactivity, a woman named Amber Duick began receiving highly personal e-mails from a total stranger. “Sebastian Bowler” appeared to be a 25-year semi-alcoholic soccer fanatic from England – at least it seemed so based on a bogus MySpace page forwarded along to Duick.

“Sebastian” also e-mailed Duick messages that he was on a cross-country tour of America and would be arriving in her community in a few days. Next, he wrote that he ran into trouble while staying at a hotel in Duick’s town, which was followed up by yet another e-mail – this time from the “manager’ of the hotel — with an “invoice” attached for replacing a hotel TV that “Sebastian” was said to have “destroyed.”

Needless to say, Ms. Duick was highly distraught over the disturbing e-mails … before she received a message directing her to a video that revealed that she had been “punked.” The whole episode was “nothing more” than a prank – part of a Toyota Matrix car advertising campaign that was aimed at young male consumers.

Understandably, Duick thought her treatment was far more than just a “harmless prank.”

And how had Duick been targeted in the first place? It turns out someone had signed her up for the campaign at, a website set up for the prank because, according to Saatchi and Saatchi, the target younger male demographic “loves to punk their friends.” (The website has long since been taken offline, for reasons that will become obvious as you read this blog post further.)

The campaign itself was elaborate, including advertising in print, online and on billboards to drive people to the website where people could enter the name and details of someone they wished to “punk.” Once targeted, that person would be besieged with text messages, phone calls, e-mails and videos over the span of a week.

The aim was to spook friends by making them think a stranger possessed personal information about them (such as their home address and phone number) … and that the stranger was on the way to visit.

Lending credibility to the elaborate hoax was establishing a fake online presence for the stranger – everything from listings appearing on search engine results pages to lifelike but bogus MySpace and Facebook pages.

“Even when you get several stages in, it’s still looking pretty real,” Saatchi & Saatchi’s creative director Alex Flint stated before his campaign took a turn for the worse. “I think even the most cynical, anti-advertising guy will appreciate the depth and length to which we’ve gone.”

The judge in the pretrial proceedings evidently thought so as well – so much so, he’s allowing the case to go forward.

And Ms. Duick isn’t going after chicken feed, either; she’s suing Toyota, Saatchi & Saatchi and ~50 people associated with the campaign for a total of $10 million, alleging infliction of emotional distress, unfair and deceptive trade practices, along with negligent misrepresentation.

When reading the judge’s reasoning for allowing the lawsuit to move forward, one is struck by the fact that, despite the elaborate efforts at realism and to cover all the bases in the campaign, the publicity folks got a few things horribly wrong.

In fact, the court, citing “fraud in the inception,” noted that Toyota had enticed Duick to click on an arbitration agreement under false pretenses. According to the lawsuit, after a friend of Duick’s signed her up to participate in the campaign without her knowledge, Duick received an e-mail with a link to a website where she was invited to participate in a personality evaluation.

Instead, that document turned out to be a release form and arbitration agreement. Duick clicked on the agreement, which made only vague references to things like “interactive experience” and “digital experience.” As a result, instead of signing up for a personality test, she proceeded to receive the strange e-mails from “Sebastian Bowler,” leading the court to state that Toyota, Saatchi & Saatchi and the individual defendants “misrepresented and concealed … the true nature of the conduct to which Duick was to be subjected.”

In hindsight, it’s obvious that the negative press surrounding this ill-fated endeavor was the last thing Toyota needs. Instead of an “oh-so clever” publicity campaign for its Matrix car, the company is left looking more than just a little foolish.

What’s the bottom line on this sorry tale? How about this: PR firms and their clients need to approach publicity campaigns in today’s interactive age with great care … and to err on the side of prudence.

True, much of what’s happening with interactivity and engagement is exciting, fresh and bold. But when major brands start playing the same kind of interactive games (in a big way) that Joe and Jane Consumer might be doing in their own little social worlds, trouble can’t be far behind.

Saatchi & Saatchi and Ketchum aren’t hayseed PR outfits. The fact that both of them come out looking pretty naïve (stupid?) as a result of the programs they devised, says legions about the risks of playing “gotcha” games in today’s interactive climate, no matter how interesting and entertaining they might seem.

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