A recession landmine is like a real landmine. It’s going to kill or maim whomever steps on it. The guilty, the innocent, the oblivious… it doesn’t matter. A landmine does not discriminate. You just explode.

And so it was with a recent Pepsi ad for G2 (low-calorie Gatorade).

When you watch the ad, you can see what Pepsi was trying to do almost immediately, then BLAM: it hits some wrong notes that have got people accusing the company of insensitivity and worse.  This means Pepsi now have something in common with AIG, but more on later.

The shots move back and forth between NBA player Kevin Garnett and a normal, suburban-looking guy – also named Kevin – who loves to swim. The voiceover also switches back and forth between the two men, and herein lies the problem. In trying to write a Nike-reminiscent “athletic striving” ad, statements that are meant to be inspiring appear instead to mock and insult people who have lost their jobs or are otherwise suffering due to the economic crisis. See for yourself (if you cannot already see the ad on your screen, click HERE).

When I first heard about this controversy, I’ll admit it: I really, really wanted to support Pepsi.  Pepsi’s a great brand.  But this spot was not well-considered in light of current circumstances.

Its lines are being called “arrogant and insensitive” and a “cruel” “slap in the face“:

Garnett: “I’ve never been handed a pink slip…” “I’ve never had to tell me wife ‘We can’t pay the mortgage.’” (Kevin “The Big Ticket” Garnett has a $24.75 million contract with the NBA)

Normal Kevin: “I’ve never had to fill the holes in my sneakers with cardboard.”

Garnett: “I’ve never used the backstroke as a ‘coping mechanism.’

And with these statements, my professional armor fell away and I became a father who can’t pay for food, a mother who cannot afford health insurance, a student who has to drop out of school. The sneaker comment IMHO hit a particularly dissonant note.  Suburban Kevin pushes us swiftly down the road, past unemployment, with homelessness straight ahead.

How did this happen? The financial services companies got into trouble for how they handled their (financial services) business. They made endemic mistakes, in their own backyards. This energy drink runs right into a buzz saw for no reason at all.

And so let us come back to how Pepsi now shares something with AIG. Both companies failed to grasp how people are feeling today… how “business as usual” no longer applies. 1.3 million children in the United States are homeless at some time every year – and that was before the recession started. One could assume that some of these children must use cardboard to fill the holes in their shoes.

If you think I’m being overly dramatic, please don’t.  A seemingly-benign or joking comment, on the job or at a cocktail party, can drop you on your own personal landmine, damaging your own personal brand.  Do not underestimate millions of people in pain.

Personally, I am counseling clients today to look hard at their messaging right now. If you are running ads, for example, make sure they are seen and tested with a much broader swath of consumers and experts – people who may not be in your target audience – because it’s not just about saleability anymore. Put campaigns through the mill. Have linguists and child advocates and food bank directors mull every word, every off- and online image.

Is all this fair? Fairness is not at play; raw nerve endings are. We are all in the business of selling, of course, but at what risk at this very moment? The news and current events are swinging wildly from one day to the next: are you comfortable deciding what positioning won’t spark an undesirable (albeit inadvertent) reaction? Think long-term. If you’re not 100% secure in next week’s flight, cancel it.  Because getting this wrong could negatively affect your brand’s reputation for years, if not a lifetime.

A version of this post is available at www.ReputationGarage.com.


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