A World Gone Ad-Mad: North Dakota’s Cautionary Facebook Tale

Posted on January 13, 2012. Filed under: Public Relations, Social Media | Tags: , , , , , |

A portion of downtown Fargo, North Dakota as v...

Fargo, N.D. Image via Wikipedia

If there’s one thing marketers get drummed into their heads, it’s the need to test specific ad concepts and strategies before going live with them — and spending buckets of dollars to do so.

Testing itself is a cost, of course.

Testing ad concepts with focus groups is time-consuming and costly. But the good sense doctors of marketing say that only a fool goes out into the market with fresh advertising — especially on a major regional or national scale — without first probing for audience disconnects.

When your target market is national or super-regional, as was the case with a new ad from the North Dakota Dept. of Commerce’s Tourism division, promoting the state’s lively, if not abundant, night-life, it’s advisable to do the focus group part right.

N.D. Tourism apparently decided to use Facebook as its focus group venue. Turns out, Facebook is a great way to get feedback on advertising tests. Too good, in fact. The online testing experiment blew up in North Dakota’s broad face, strewing hard-edged shards of criticism across the Internet.

The ad in question, designed for magazine display, depicts some sporty but clean-cut young chaps lounging in the window seats of a trendy-looking bar, eyeing with unabashed pleasure a group of three young women decamped on the sidewalk outside the bar. Everybody seems to be having a good time, or at least looking forward to having a good time together, not so surprising considering this is what young men and women tend to do when they go out on the town.

But the copy lines, while terse and grabby, were all wrong according to many of the online commentators. “Drinks. Dinner. Decisions. Arrive a guest. Leave a legend.”

Too suggestive to many, it seems, of a meat-market approach to marketing the social virtues of urbane North Dakota cities, in this case, Fargo.

What first brought my attention to the matter was this Thursday evening Tweet from journalist Lucy Kafanov, to wit: LucyKafanov This North Dakota tourism ad pretty much cements my desire to avoid the state at all costs. twitpic.com/86irif

Ms. Kafanov’s stony sentiment toward the Peace Garden State was soon echoed across the cyber universe. Scads of reviewers, many young women apparently miffed over the idea of becoming the stuff of lewd legend should they venture into the North Dakota wilds, voiced their objections online. N.D. Tourism officials woke up on Friday morning to discover their world gone mad. What started out as an innocent attempt to pre-test the efficacy of the ad on the Tourism department’s Facebook page had degenerated into a monumental pile-up of ill will toward the state.

Holy haystacks! What a PR nightmare for Sara Otte Coleman, N.D.’s tourism director, forced to plead her case for understanding of the ad against a din of derision that would leave her in the end to say, in a Forum news story: “At this point, I would say we’d have lots of other options to showcase the nightlife and the downtown fun atmosphere that Fargo and Grand Forks and Bismarck have to offer,” she said. “I would say no, we can probably find a better way to communicate the intended message than that ad.”

So there. Lesson learned, the hard way: be careful what you test for on Facebook. You might be starting a viral fire that’s really hard to squelch once it gets going. And not all viral fires are friendly. Makes a typical focus group meeting, with soft drinks and pizza all around, seem downright inviting.

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