| 10th May 2012
PR is one of the main driving forces behind the automotive industry. When we’re not being sent press releases gushing about the luxurious cabin of a brand new car, we’re getting phone calls and emails about the latest, greatest auto innovations that – more often than not – turn out to be a load of old plop.
But not all news is good news. There are tales as old as time of automotive PR departments ballsing it up on a phenomenal scale with something creative, when all they should concentrate on is the car itself. Sometimes it’s impossible to turn a negative into a glowing positive, no matter how much spin is put on a failed campaign.
Below are some examples of the most horrific PR disasters we’ve ever come across in the car industry when manufacturers have tried to advertise new car discounts and more, which include stalking, massive corporate losses and even fatalities:
Ferrari’s Minging Dynasty
The inspiration for this article. You may have heard that Ferrari caused something of a faux-pas in China on Sunday 6 May. It all started when the Italian sports car maker carefully positioned a 458 Italia on an ancient city wall in Nanjing. The wall dates back over 600 years to the Ming Dynasty and is something of a cultural icon in the area. The idea was to celebrate 20 years of Ferrari activity in the Chinese auto market. Instead, the entire country is in uproar after an employee tested the car to its limits, leaving hideous black tyre marks all over Nanjing’s pride and joy.
City officials categorically deny involvement by claiming Ferrari didn’t have permission to be on the wall, despite reports claiming Ferrari had paid approximately £8,000 to be there. Ferrari has also gone on the defensive by blaming a member of staff at a local dealership for the accident, saying no Ferrari employee was responsible for the (superficial) damage. In response China has blocked the word ‘Ferrari’ from microblogs, where an outraged public are venting their fury. Cars are seen as a privilege in China, and many have taken the Ferrari stunt as a serious personal insult.
The Mini Cooper Chill Factor
You may not have known that Germany's meteorology institute allows people to sponsor weather systems. BMW’s PR firm, Sassenbach, therefore decided to sponsor a cold front in February this year. There was a particular icy blast making its way across Europe, which the firm decided to name ‘Cooper’, to publicise BMW’s Mini Cooper model. The thinking was that relating a cold front to an open-air car was a "wind and weather-proof idea", with Sassenbach encouraging people to follow Cooper’s progress across the continent on meteorological websites.
The thing was, though, that Cooper was a particularly aggressive blizzard that hospitalised over 950 people alone in Ukraine alone, who suffered from frostbite and hypothermia. In fact, Cooper was one of the most severe cold fronts that Europe had seen in years, causing close to 100 fatalities. It only cost BMW £190, but they immediately distanced the Cooper (car) from the unholy life-claiming cold snap Cooper (blizzard). Sassenbach decided to try and make amends the best they could, sponsoring the warmer weather that followed as ‘Minnie’.
GM’s Customer Deployment Satisfaction Solutions
Though the Chevrolet Volt is absolutely gorgeous and an incredibly popular plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, there were rumours of serious mechanical issues dating back to its launch in 2010. There’s documented evidence of cars catching fire completely out of the blue. The Volt even caught fire during government-controlled National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) testing. Still, the car went on sale, which caused a massive headache for manufacturers General Motors when they requested that every single Volt ever sold needed be returned to dealerships as soon as possible in early 2012.
Around 8,000 Volts had to be returned to be fixed. If that wasn’t bad enough for the company, they were publicly attacked by the media for the way they glossed over the scenario. GM went out of their way to avoid calling the situation a product recall and instead branded it as a “customer satisfaction program call back". By calling it that GM were hoping to avoid bad publicity and federal monitoring that came from officially requesting a recall. The media and public found it hard to swallow, especially after the public owned shares in GM following a government bailout...
Lotus’s Bahar Breakdown
Dany Bahar is the CEO of luxury brand Lotus, which is rumoured to be in something of a financial quagmire. Malaysian-based owners Proton were recently purchased by DRB-Hicom, a pretty large corporation also based in the country. That, in turn, led to speculation that Lotus was heading for administration and that Bahar was clearing his desk. Bahar has long trumpeted a "five-year plan" to turn the company around; a picture appeared on auto news blog SniffPetrol of Bahar, photoshopped to look like ex Iraq information minister Baghdad Bob. The picture was supposedly a light-hearted jest at Bahar’s claims that all was rosy in the Lotus garden.
Bahar didn’t take that prod well at all. He released a furious, lengthy press release in response. Below are our favourite extracts from what can only be described as a very public meltdown:
“Don't you think it's funny? We do. We had a good old giggle. After all, we love a bit of self irony, just as well really. Although it's funny, this one's not accurate but then again, why let the facts get in the way of a good story? The inconvenient truth is – surprise, surprise – we have never said that there are no problems at Lotus."
"So whilst lots of people obviously feel the need to comment on Lotus' current situation in the absence of proper facts or evidence, we can't ignore these particular mistruths any longer even if we would like to, so we have decided to turn a negative into a positive and use this hilarious piece of ‘art' to set the record straight regarding the status quo at Group Lotus and try to return a little stability to a fast changing situation."
“And whilst we're on the subject of jokes - do you know the latest F1 joke? Mike Gascoyne, Caterham Group's Chief Technical Officer, has gone missing. Why? He's looking for the 30 to 40 points he predicted for the last F1 season. Funny."
Toyota’s Viral Stalking Matrix
Everyone’s doing viral marketing. A lot of viral marketing gurus underline that for a marketing campaign to go global, the content has to entertain people so much that they want to share it with their friends. Toyota took that philosophy a little too much to heart, and released an online game in 2009 to promote their new Toyota Matrix. Called ‘Your Other You’, it was an elaborate online prank where people could enter their friends’ personal details and watch as they got stalked to within an inch of their life.
Except it terrified a lady called Amber Duick to such an extent that she sued Toyota for $10million. She received emails from a man called Sebastian Bowler, a 25-year-old English football fan with a heavy drink problem. Toyota’s PR firm Saatchi & Saatchi went as far to create in-depth MySpace pages for a range of uncouth characters, including Bowler, which was supposed to be part of the joke. They even created an album for one character’s fictional band! Duick was bombarded with emails from the fictional Bowler who claimed to have her address, threatened to visit and bill her for televisions he’d destroyed in a motel, which prompted her to haul Toyota to court when she discovered their involvement.
It certainly got the Matrix a lot of publicity. Whether it helped them to convince people to buy new cars, though, we’re still not sure...
Image sources: We Interrupt, Carthrottle, Weaselzippers, SniffPetrol, Wired and Business Insider.
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