In an episode of 30 Rock broadcast live in 2010, attention-seeking sketch comedian Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) catches some reruns of The Carol Burnett Show and decides to start mimicking its tendency for characters to “break”—that is, succumb involuntarily to laughter on-screen—on purpose. In a jealousy-induced panic, his co-star, the equally egotistical Jenna Maroney (played by Jane Krakowski), ups the ante, threatening to “slip a nip” while the cameras are rolling. In typical sitcom fashion, none of it works out particularly well for the characters, the lesson being that you just can’t force a gaffe.
That’s something brands (and the companies that love them) ought to keep in mind in the wake of the jaw-dropping blunder that ended the 89th annual Academy Awards on Sunday night. In case you’ve somehow missed it, the envelope Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway read from when announcing Best Picture winner was the wrong one, and it took until midway through round of impassioned acceptance speeches for the producers of La La Land to realize they hadn’t won the top prize, after all; Moonlight had.
It was a genuinely shocking moment, for the winners (both sets), the show producers and the millions of viewers who really, truly, didn’t see that one coming. And unless you’re convinced it the whole cock-up was orchestrated for the drama, it’s hard to imagine this is what the folks at the Oscars wanted to happen. But beyond some bruised egos, the mistake won’t leave any lasting damage on the Oscar brand. In fact, it gave the awards exactly what it needed: big, dramatic twist people will talk about for years.
Up until the final blunder, the show contained only tepid moments of WTF-ery: Moana star Auli’i Cravalho soldiering through her song performance after getting bonked in the head by a wayward interpretive dance accessory; host Jimmy Kimmel grasping for an “Ellen selfie” situation by tweet-trolling President Donald Trump. Fine diversions, yes, but hardly the kind of water-cooler moments that the public demands of live events in 2017.
Because today’s media landscape is so fragmented, big, communal cultural experiences are rarer than they were back when Friends was hauling tens of millions of viewers every Thursday night at 8:00; and because almost everything is available to watch on-demand, not much of what people consume is truly unpredictable anymore. As a result, when the odd un-PVR-able event takes place—an awards show, a big sports game, an election—masses of people can’t look away; they all but expect the unexpected to occur. So when these heightened expectations combine with an actual surprise, and the whole debacle refracts through the online reaction chamber of memes, hot takes and social media shares? For a brand as dependent on public buzz as the Oscars, it’s lightning in a bottle.
Companies the world over are already poring over this flashpoint, hunting for novel ways to harness the public’s engagement in such unplanned instances for profit. (I’d bet a parachute’s worth of Junior Mints that more than one poor marketer was called into her boss’s office this morning and tasked with staging some sort of “Best Picture” moment.) This isn’t all reactionary foolishness: There is a well-documented history of companies using their own blunders as springboards for growth. Volkswagen’s storied “Lemon” ad campaign is the classic example; more recently, ubiquitous podcast-sponsoring email platform MailChimp has leaned hard into the fact that people apparently find the mispronunciation of its name endearing. Of course, it’s a heck of a lot easier for a brand to “react” to a mistake when it’s not actually that serious, so the impetus to at least consider fabricating a little drama is understandable.
But it’s unadvisable. Unplanned errors or odd interludes work for things like the Academy Awards, or the Superbowl (remember Left Shark?), or televised presidential debates (consider Ken Bone)—live events whose very value proposition lies in the notion that anything could happen. There are very few real-world businesses that operate on that model. It’s worth noting that, once the embarrassment ebbs a bit, while the producers at the Oscars will probably consider this one a win, their partners at PwC probably won’t. The accounting firm was quick to take the blame for the flubbed Best Picture announcement, but the effects of such a conspicuous failure of protocol will likely linger for some time—not exactly a great thing for a brand that is predicated on a reputation for due process and diligence.
Marketers have a responsibility to observe and act upon what people react to, but it’s important not to conflate “everybody can’t stop talking about this” with “we should do something similar.” As much as #BestPictureGate is dominating the news cycle, its beneficiaries are outliers. Most companies embroiled in similar snafus get far less of a Hollywood ending.
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