Of brave marketing, the prime minister, the pig and me
You know how we spend a lot of time talking about brave marketing?
Last week, for once somebody actually did some.
It did not go well.
I’m referring to the slightly unedifying tale of Studio’s ‘bestiality ad’ and Foxtel’s rapid retreat.
I had a part in it – and the story goes back longer than you might think.
Nearly two years, in fact.
That was when I got to watch the first episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.
Somewhat unfashionably, I don’t approve of piracy, but a relative in the UK posted me a DVD they recorded when the show aired in the UK.
It creates an extremely plausible version a series of events involving the (fictional) British prime minister. The British Princess is kidnapped, and her captor’s only demand is that the PM has sex with a pig on live TV. He prepares to commit the act. That much is in the trailer. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say if he goes through with it or not.
Now clearly, this is dark, dark satire. It was also one of the best, most thought-provoking pieces of television I’ve seen for some time.
And it struck me that should it air in Australia, the plotline of a prime minister having sex with a pig on live TV might be newsworthy.
Just in case, I paused the episode and took a screen grab of a key moment. More than a year later, this would be important.
I rang the company who has local distribution rights to Black Mirror and chatted to a member of the sales team. Nobody had yet picked up the rights, but they promised to let me know when they did.
I must admit, I forgot to chase it. Fast forward to 2012. One night I was idly surfing the programme guide. The episode was on SBS in 20 minutes. It was too late to write a story, although I may have tweeted a recommendation.
And that, I thought, was that. The moment had been missed.
Until I went to an event held by arts channel Studio about three weeks ago.
Studio, by the way, is a somewhat curious beast. Airing on Foxtel, it launched three years ago, replacing the somewhat more sedate Ovation. It is managed by SBS so has access to much of the same content. It’s a good channel. Roughly the same arrangement is also in place for the World Movies channel.
Separate to the main SBS marketing team, there is a small, but hard working and imaginative marketing operation for Studio and World Movies, led by head of marketing Jo McAllister – in my experience, they try harder than any other channel marketing team in the country.
I wrote about their mystery movie screening of Battle Royale during which they took over Goat Island in Sydney last October. It was later shortlisted for the Branded Entertainment Awards.
And the Studio event I mentioned, which in part launched the festival of WTF, took place at the Belvoir Street Theatre. Again it was a great example of imaginative marketing on a limited budget, with dinner taking place on three long tables actually on the stage.
The reel we watched beforehand included mention of Black Mirror.
Later that night, I mentioned to Jo the chance I had missed when it aired the first time round.
She had some good news for me. In a few weeks time, a billboard was going up near Kings Cross using an image from that very series. I would have my story.
Sure enough, on Tuesday just gone,the Studio team emailed me some images, a few minutes after the poster was in place.
As you can see, there’s nothing particularly explicit. You have to know what’s going on to have the context.
Which I provided in my news story, posted just after 8pm that night. Admittedly, I didn’t do it with half measures. The intro was “A large format billboard has been posted in Sydney featuring the British prime minister preparing to have sex with a pig.”
The next day, the Sydney Morning Herald and news.com.au had the story too. The Christian lobby and Collective Shout quickly got in on the act.
It was also an easy one for the Outdoor Media Association to put the boot in on – the billboard was not owned by one of their members.
Within 24 hours of the poster going up, Foxtel ordered it be taken down. It was, said Foxtel, a “lapse of judgement” by the Studio marketing team.
My understanding, based on a single but reliable source, is that the decision to take it down was that of Foxtel boss Richard Freudenstein who did not want a battle with the Christian lobby. I understand that the poster had been seen prior to posting by members of the wider Foxtel marketing team. (In fairness, I should also be clear that Jo McAllister is not my source on this.)
So taken down it was. Accompanied by an expensive pulping of the SMH’s Saturday Spectrum insert where another version of the ad – also relatively tame – was included.
(By the way, the handling from this moment, if Foxtel wanted it to go away, was textbook PR perfect. Take decisive action immediately, apologise fully and do it all on the same day.)
Sadly, because it was taken down, it is going to look like it was a rule breaker when the Advertising Standards Board examines complaints, as it inevitably will. The complaints will automatically be upheld because that is the case for all ads which are removed or amended.
Cynics – and if I wasn’t uncomfortably close to this, I would be one of them – would say that this was all a stunt from start to finish.
I don’t believe this to be the case. Firstly, if that was the plan, Studio could have milked it for much longer.
And the billboard was clearly intended to be mildly provocative but to be within reasonable bounds.
Unfortunately a brave piece of marketing lost out to the needs of the wider organisation.
And if we do genuinely care about brave marketing as an industry, that should be disappointing for all of us.