Posts by Rachel Birnbaum - New York

‘You can never be too thin’? Make that ‘too careful’

In writing about the “Cathy” comic strip coming to an end, The New York Times includes a typical panel, showing the perennially anxious Cathy holding her “trophy swimsuit,” an item far smaller than her actual frame. Body-consciousness and anxiety tend to go hand in hand, and two recent ad efforts triggered accusations of helping to feed that anxiety. Ann Taylor’s Loft brand was criticized for Photoshopping models’ waistlines beyond recognition. Then some in the blogosphere cried foul over outdoor ads in New York that featured a stack of Snack Factory’s Pretzel Crisps and the headline “You can never be too thin.” Several critics took on the ads themselves with guerilla-style postings.

Are people simply overreacting? Loft shouldn’t get a pass for shrinking its models. But I’m inclined to cut the Snack Factory some slack—after all, they’re advertising pretzels, not diet pills or a weight-loss shake. But others may feel different, and in an age of hyper-sensitivity, marketers must think of every which way their advertising (even the most seemingly innocuous) might be interpreted.

I’m not saying ads should be vanilla; provocation can be great. But marketers must be prepared to face the consequences, especially given how easily they can be magnified by the megaphone of social media. As we advised in our Social Media Checklist, assume your brand will be embarrassed at some point and have a plan to deal with worst-case scenarios. The Loft later scored some points by showcasing five staffers of various heights and sizes wearing its new pants. And Snack Factory replaced the headline with “Tastes as good as skinny feels.” What do you think? Were these adequate responses?

Will BP’s nightmare be a boost for Dawn?

Scenes from the BP oil spill crisis—notably images of oil-drenched wildlife—continue to stir up feelings of anxiety, frustration and hopelessness. But one brand has managed to turn images of affected birds into something optimistic: Dawn is touting itself as part of the solution, since rescuers are using the dishwashing detergent to clean birds. The timing is actually coincidental, as Dawn launched this warm-and-fuzzy spot last summer and began re-airing it in advance of Earth Day, shortly before the Gulf disaster. (Dawn has been used in such situations since the late ’70s, according to The New York Times, and in the last few years has leveraged this fact in its CSR initiatives.)

Is this a case of a brand opportunistically capitalizing on tragedy? Or a benevolent brand being smart? Dawn is earning its share of criticism, with headlines like “How BP’s Oil Spill Will Create a Gusher of Money for P&G’s Dishwashing Liquid.” And The Huffington Post says the ad “allows [Dawn] to spin the recent disaster into their fortune”—but in a poll, only about a quarter of readers agree that “it’s tacky to use the oil spill for gain.” Most consumers will likely feel partial to a product that can mitigate the effects of the spill and can, in a small way, counteract their feelings of helplessness.

As Oprah tackles distracted driving, an opportunity opens for brands

texting-while-drivingLast week, Oprah Winfrey unveiled a PSA campaign for the first national No Phone Zone Day to honor victims of what’s being called distracted driving. The No Phone Zone goal is simple: Get people to pledge that they will stop using their phones to text, e-mail, Facebook or even talk while driving. (According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted drivers were responsible for nearly 6,000 U.S. deaths and more than half a million injuries in 2008.)

To help drivers keep the temptation of technology at bay, several cell phone apps lock the phone while a car is in motion. The New York Times recently reviewed iZup, tXtBlocker, CellSafety and ZoomSafer, which use GPS to calculate whether the device is moving at more than 5-10 miles an hour.

How can brands address public anxiety over distracted driving and help to improve road safety? Just as marketers have promoted public safety issues such as “Don’t drink and drive,” this 21st-century issue is one that responsible brands would do well to align themselves with.

Photo Credit: mrJasonWeaver

In times of stress, perhaps less equals more

choices1Walmart, Target, CVS and Walgreens are among the major retail chains paring brand-name products from their shelves in favor of private-label brands. This means fewer choices for consumers. Although conventional wisdom has it that people prefer more options, and a recent analysis in the Journal of Consumer Research seems to back this up, a piece in The New York Times challenges this theory. Reporter Alina Tugend questions whether choice overload can create anxiety and “paralyze people or push them into decisions that are against their own interest.”

Tugend describes a study by Columbia University business professor Sheena Iyengar. When a booth in a gourmet supermarket offering samples of jam included six varieties, 30 percent of shoppers who stopped by bought a jam; when the booth offered a much wider 24-flavor selection, only 3 percent actually purchased something. (But while 60 percent of customers stopped by when more flavors were on offer, the six-flavor selection attracted only 40 percent.)

Photo Credit: D’Arcy Norman