Fresh One, an Australian-based coffee distributor, is feeling the heat today, and it isn’t the warmth of a freshly brewed cup of morning Joe. The company, also known as Fresh Boost, has been fiercely criticized by fans and activist groups like Collective Shout for their porn-inspired Facebook ads.
While many companies have used sex and sexuality to sell products, such as the highly suggestive Herbal Essences TV Commercials, Fresh One succeeded in crossing the line that divides clever marketing from highly offensive content. In fact they not only crossed that line, they blew it up with a pipe bomb, then bulldozed the debris into a large pile, loaded that pile into a rocket, and blasted into deep space, to Boldly Go where few line-crossers have gone before.
Don’t believe me? Look at the images, two of which are embedded in the image at the top of this article. The most offensive one, which I will not post here (see the Collective Shout archive linked to above), goes as far as to depict a woman’s naked sexual organs (covered only by Fresh One logos) as metaphorical “coffee beans”, not-so-subtly encouraging the viewer to take a “mouthful” of them.
Whereas many marketing campaigns play off elements of sexuality, such as pleasureful moaning sounds, Fresh One’s campaign transforms sexual and highly sexualized images into blatant visual metaphors for their coffee. Even this might not be so bad, were it not that a single consistent pattern emerges from them: woman as pure object, depersonalized to the maximum extent possible as things which fulfill the base cravings of men.
Blatant depictions of females performing oral sex on males, and various sexual “food fetishes” (e.g. chocolate syrup or milk poured onto a woman’s body), leave little doubt that Fresh One was targeting only half of their audience, while being entirely unconcerned whether they offended the other half. It was, perhaps, the most extreme objectification of women in coffee advertisements in decades.
Rather than engage the criticism and learn from it, Fresh One first attempted to defend themselves by accusing those complaining of espousing “Ultra Conservative Views”. Leave aside that there really was no good defense to be made here, the company doubled down on their comedy of errors by blaming the audience, an approach which is rarely right and even more rarely works. If there were a book on how to handle such a situation (yes, I know, there are actually hundreds and maybe thousands, none of which the Fresh One folks ever read apparently), Rule #1 would be that: when offering a defense of scandalous advertising, one should never blame or label those who are complaining.
Rule #2 would cover what came next: Fresh One shut down their Facebook Page, where most of the discussion was taking place. Never, EVER withdraw entirely from the discussion on your fan pages, website, blog, or anywhere else the discussion is taking place by shutting them down. That is the online equivalent of handling complaints in your store by kicking out your customers and closing down the business.
Perhaps someone at Fresh One realized that the ad campaign itself had been truly boneheaded, and the response to the controversy even worse, and took to mind that the best solution was to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. If so, that was also a big mistake. It’s sure to alienate even your fans, depriving you of what should be a beneficial part of your online presence, and to leave the offended parties the loudest voices on the internet discussing your brand. Such controversies don’t go away because you ignore them, not quickly enough at least to avoid permanent damage to your reputation.
Recently I warned against killing your brand for social media. One thing I warned against was “That Goofy Meme” that has no relevance to your brand, which is very similar to what Fresh One did here. While they attempted to make the images brand relevant, even going so far as to literally brand them, it was nothing more than an attempt to force a square peg into a round hole by placing a round sticker on it.
I also warned against failing to respond to comments on social media. Certainly, shutting down your social media account is easily the most extreme example of this fundamental mistake.
This scandal may or may not kill the Fresh One brand, it has unquestionably tarnished their image and alienated large segments of their fan base and potential audience, especially the female side of the equation at a time when women control most of the domestic purchasing power in many nations.
While they can never undo this mistake, and may never fix the damage, their failure can provide many valuable negative lessons in branding. Even if you aren’t offending half the planet with your marketing campaigns, perhaps in other ways you are similarly tarnishing or diminishing your reputation? That’s a possibility that every business must at least consider.