Reputation: Why Ford's Indian Ad Affair Hurts Their Brand Even If They Had Nothing To Do With It

Images from a controversial Ford advertising campaign in India went viral on 22 March 2013, followed by a furious backlash against the company. Many people took issue with the image of people bound and gagged in the back of the car; others were upset by the image of Berlusconi during a period of difficult diplomatic relations between Italy and India.

Except that Ford didn't really have anything to do with it. The ads were created by employees at the JWT agency in India entirely on their own initiative without any input or approval from the agency or the client. The same individuals then uploaded them to a site where people in the advertising business post their work to be seen primarily by their peers. The ad was never requested, seen or approved by Ford or even their agency. [Update: there are different versions of the story. Some say Ford knew more than they say in the official version. See Ford Mess: Ford, JWT and WPP Have Overeacted. ]

Most people agree that the fault lies with the individuals who created and uploaded the images and JWT for a lack of supervision. Perhaps a small part of the blame could be attributed to Ford because their oversight of the agency was imperfect, but this is surely a minor sin of omission. Yet in the court of public opinion Ford gets the blame because their logo is on the ads. Even though the full story has been widely reported, like in this Campaign article, most people only see the images on Facebook and never read the articles. Very few people outside of the advertising business have any idea anyway of the role of JWT in this affair or the practice of bored creatives making artwork for ideas that they would never dare to propose to clients.

If there is a key learning from this affair it is that if your name is on the ad you will get blamed for it even if you had nothing to do with it. There are still many websites that show the Southern Comfort "Liquid Panty Remover" ad (here's an example) and the BMW "You know that you're not the first" used car ad (example) -- both widely debunked as fakes. Ironically Ford contributed to the confusion when they apologized for the Indian ads. Normally I encourage people to apologize when they upset people but this is one of those cases where it has the unintended effect of making people assume they have done something wrong. Perhaps Ford would be been better advised to insist that JWT apologize, since their role in the failure of oversight was apparently greater.

In all of these cases the original image was widely shared on social media but any explanation was mostly ignored and seen only by people in the business. The inevitable conclusion is that the only way to protect against this kind of reputation crisis is just to be extremely strict about what employees of the agencies do with your branding. Companies need to make it clear that they will not work with any agency that does not have a zero tolerance policy. In the pre-Internet days creatives could have fun with fake ads and share them with their friends, but this is simply not possible today when images can spread worldwide in hours. In this situation allowing people to put your branding on potentially controversial fake materials is about as sensible as keeping the rat poison on the shelf right next to the sugar. It's a pointless risk not worth taking.

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