Marketing fails all the time, but if we’re lucky, it’s only because it didn’t connect the way it was intended to, and a few tweaks can save it.
But occasionally, well-meaning marketing misses its target so entirely that it lands right in the “Tone-deaf and hurtful” pile of failed marketing, as ATCO, an Alberta-based company, is currently discovering.
Even if you’re not familiar with ATCO as a company, you’re probably familiar with their products - portable, modular building structures that can be found at construction sites, schools, and public locations all over the world, marked by their signature orangey-yellow stripe with the ATCO logo across the top of most of their temporary structures.
For their 75th Anniversary, ATCO released a 2m22s second video designed to portray their commitment to being there to help wherever they’re needed.
The beautifully shot video actually seems to do this quite well. It starts with 2 elementary-aged girls loading a seedling into an old wagon and being sent off by (presumably) their mother. It then follows them as they tow their tiny tree through town to the location of a new temporary school, constructed of ATCO structures.
Scenes of the girls struggling with their heavy load are interspersed with scenes of ATCO trailers being transported across rivers, through beautiful mountain settings, and finally the same locations we just watched the girls walk by. The video ends with the girls trying in vain to dig a hole to plant their tiny tree in front of their new school, and an ATCO employee coming to assist them.
In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful and well-done marketing pieces I’ve seen in a while, and it does exactly what it intends to - imply that ATCO is there to help. Watching the entire video brought tears to my eyes. I find my vision getting a bit blurry describing it here, and marketing doesn’t typically make me emotional. (Except for those saccharine Hallmark ads. Every. Damn. Time.)
So if it’s so beautiful and hits the mark it set out to hit so well, what exactly is the problem with this ad?
Well, let’s start with Problem #1: The filming location.
The town the girls are walking through is #LyttonBC. The entire village of Lytton was burned to the ground during a heatwave at the end of June 2021, and the girls are dragging their wagon, heavy with what I’m going to call their “Tree of Hope”, down sidewalks littered with debris, walking by nothing but the fire-ravaged remnants of buildings.
Part of the reason that watching the entire ATCO video makes me so emotional is because Lytton holds a special place in my heart.
While I’m not and have never been a resident, I have driven through it on a regular basis for most of my life, and since the fall of 2020, the tiny community marks roughly the half-way point between my house and my mom’s.
The drive through the area has always had a profound effect on me, reminding me just how beautiful our province is, and, with stunning views of mountain ranges and drastic terrain changes, just how small I am in relation to the world.
Driving through the area surrounding Lytton is a spiritual experience for me.
I even have an old photo somewhere of my young daughter standing excitedly in front of the “Welcome to Lytton” sign that we took on our very first road trip alone, ironically also during a wildfire season that devastated central BC in 2003.
Watching the scenes of utter devastation contrasted against the beauty of my province and portrayed for commercial purposes was heart-wrenching. I can only imagine how devastating it is for the residents to see their community portrayed this way.
Don't even get me started on the fact that the school represented in the video isn't actually one located in Lytton...
Problem #2 - Filming schedule.
The video was apparently filmed in April of this year - while Lytton was still mostly closed to its residents because it’s too dangerous.
The residents of Lytton are angry, and rightly so. Their mayor and city council permitted barricades and safety fencing to be removed for a film crew while the residents are being denied access and still have no idea when a plan for the rebuilding of their community will be presented, let alone commence. According to residents like Denise O’Connor (@deed5 on Twitter), choices like this by council are preventing the cleanup and debris removal necessary for the community to start efforts to rebuild.
Problem #3 - Walking on Sunshine?
The third problem with ATCO’s video is the choice of music. The video is set to a slowed-down, folksy cover of Katrina and the Wave’s 1983 hit Walking on Sunshine. (Very similar to this version)
I can’t even describe how poor this song choice is for a video filmed in Lytton; it’s left me pretty speechless.
Before last summer, the tiny village of Lytton was lovingly referred to as “Canada’s Hot Spot,” as it rarely rains and temperatures there are consistently warmer than almost anywhere else in the country.
Lytton is nestled where two rivers converge and, combined with frequent sunny days and warm temperatures, was a popular destination for people looking to soak up the sun.
A record-breaking heatwave, where temperatures reached 49.7C (121f), with no reprieve - or rain - for weeks contributed to the fire that wiped out over 90% of the community.
The sun literally burned this town to a crisp; I doubt the residents feel anything remotely like they’re “walking on sunshine.”
Problem #4 - (Possible) Editing choices.
When ATCO’s video was first brought to my attention yesterday, it was as a 30-second video that is apparently being shown as a television ad.
I say apparently, because I have no way to confirm this as I don’t watch TV, and TV ads aren’t always available on the interwebs. The ad was shared to me by my partner, who saw it being talked about on Twitter.
Discussions on seemingly controversial marketing approaches are common in my house, so I wasn’t really surprised when he brought this ad to my attention. I typically try to approach them with objectivity, trying to determine the reasons for the choices made and weighing their success.
But ATCOs 30-second ad was different; it was deeply personal. And what I was watching made me sad, angry, and disgusted.
The original video I watched was cut in a way that it eliminated the intended connection. All it showed was 2 smiling girls dragging their “Tree of Hope” down debris-laden streets and ATCO structures being transported to - and through - fire-ravaged Lytton.
There was no starting point with a loving mother on the porch of an inviting blue house. There was no endpoint of planting a tree in front of a new school location.
There was only devastation, the pointless transportation of a tree, and ATCO’s name all over everything. All set eerily to Walking on Sunshine.
In short, it was gross. And completely missed the mark.
Now, I have no way of knowing who edited the first video I watched. But whether it was edited purposely on behalf of ATCO or was done by a random Internet resident to make a point of its grossness no longer matters.
Because THIS is the video that everyone is now seeing. And this is the video that ATCO will be judged by. It no longer matters how beautifully-shot the original piece was, or how well it told the story it was trying to tell.
And it’s not the production company, or the marketing agency, or even the person that may have edited it in this way that will be judged for this video; despite them likely having more to do with the choices made than ATCO, their names will never be associated with the ad in more than passing.
ATCO is the one who will be - is being held responsible for this tone-deaf and insensitive ad. And how they respond will set the tone for how the world responds to them as a business.
This is what can happen when marketing misses its mark.
Most of the time, it will be a minor inconvenience, requiring you to go back to the drawing board and reconfigure a few things.
But sometimes, the distance between target and landing it so wide that it brings the Internet into it. And we all know what can happen when the Internet gets involved. We see this play out in real-time frequently. (Remember Burger King’s “Women Belong in the Kitchen” campaign?)
The reality is that you might never know when or if your marketing will connect like you intend it to, or if it will crash and burn, bringing your reputation down with it. Your marketing can “go viral” at any moment, for positive reasons or negative ones. All you can do as a marketer is be prepared either way.
What can you do if your marketing goes viral for the wrong reasons?
As I write this piece, there’s a few butterflies of fear flapping around in my stomach. I know that my intention with this article comes from a good place, but still I fear that it will be viewed in the same negative light as the ATCO video.
I worry that instead of coming across as championing for a more conscious and heart-centered approach to marketing, it will come across as supportive of the ad, or worse, capitalizing further on the hardships faced by the residents of Lytton.
But my intention doesn’t matter. How people receive the message does. As they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
If someone has received your message in a way other than you intended it, that’s on you, not on them. It means YOU didn’t do an adequate job of crafting your message, so don’t blame them for that.
If your message has been received negatively, how you handle the fallout - and how quickly you address it - will have the biggest impact on public response.
You’ll need to act fast, but also thoughtfully.
Most of the time, when your marketing touches the wrong nerve, people are only interested in one thing: your apology.
You’ve offended them, you’ve hurt their feelings, you’ve made them angry, you took advantage. Whatever it is they’re feeling, they need you to validate it. They need you to acknowledge it and apologize for it.
It’s when you don’t acknowledge or apologize for the way you made your audience feel that can do the most damage to your reputation.
The sooner you apologize, the better. The more time that passes, the longer the wound has to fester, allowing the problem to get worse.
But just offering up a blanket apology isn’t going to cut it. Your apology needs to be genuine and sincere.
Don’t justify, don’t minimize, and don’t sweep it under the rug. People are upset, and you need to diffuse the situation to the best of your ability and start rebuilding the relationship.
You need to actually say you’re sorry. Not “I’m sorry, but...” Not, “We’re sorry...” Not “I’m sorry we upset you...” Just “I’m sorry.” Anything added after “I’m sorry” invalidates the apology.
You need to own the mistake and admit you were wrong. You need to take responsibility for the action or event. Even if you could easily pass the blame, doing so renders the apology useless. If you can’t find a way to own the mistake, it would be less damaging to just not apologize at all then it would be to offer one up that you can’t own.
You need to describe what happened without explanations. You need to show that you understand what happened and are capable of resolving it, but the receiver of your apology is not interested in your explanations yet, if ever. Explaining “your side of things” just serves to minimize your responsibility and isn’t needed.
You need to have a plan. Let people know how you intend to fix the situation and/or prevent it from happening again.
You need to ask for forgiveness. Showing vulnerability can go a long way in showing that your apology is sincere.
Offering up a sincere and genuine apology may not make it all go away overnight, but it starts building the path to understanding and reconnection.
What else can you do to mitigate negative responses to your marketing efforts?
Create a Crisis Response Plan. The best way to get in front of a problem is to be prepared for it. Think out ahead of time how you will handle and respond to various crises that you might have to face in the future. Who will be doing the apologizing? Where? What strategy will you use to get the apology out to the people who need to hear it? What actions will be taken and by whom? Hopefully, you will never need to use your plan, but if you do, you will be able to act quickly because everything will be laid out for you ahead of time.
Do your best to remove the offending materials as quickly as possible. Sometimes, there is no redeeming a message that hit so disastrously. Rather than trying to change, edit, or alter it, it’s better to just retire it immediately. Even if you’re really proud of it, the message missed the mark. You can’t undo that.
Don’t make the situation worse. If you’re not sure what to do, what to say, or how to respond yet, do nothing until you are. Things said without thought can make the situation worse, so if you need to think about how to respond before acting, then take the time to do that.
ATCOs response to the upset over their video was posted to Twitter:
“The story is entirely fictional, and a portion of this video was filmed in Lytton, BC, where a wildfire devastated the town in 2021. ATCO has been working with the town to provide meaningful support for their recovery and rebuilding.”
It’s just as insensitive as the video, as their “fictionalized” story is not fiction at all. It’s the reality of Lytton residents - sans clean-up, rebuilding, or “meaningful support.”
ATCO may have invested a lot of resources into creating this video, but it’s missed its mark and it needs to go. They also need to offer a genuine apology to the residents of Lytton for capitalizing on an ongoing event that has completely devastated their lives.
If you want to help the people of Lytton rebuild their community and their livelihoods, you can donate to the Rebuild Lytton Fund here.