In the normal course of events, ad agencies come in to help clients clean up a mess – they don’t create it in the first place. That, however, was the case this week at WPP Group and its JWT subsidiary in India. The British imagemaker and world’s largest ad agency was in the unenviable position of having to apologize for salacious and, to many, highly offensive advertisements JWT employees created for Ford India.
The faux ad campaign depicts a famous person in the front seat of the Ford Figo with his or her perceived rivals bound and gagged in the roomy trunk. In one, Paris Hilton winks saucily as three Kardashian sisters squirm in the boot. In another, someone resembling Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi flashes a “peace” sign above three tied-up young ladies sporting spiked heels, leather, and ball gags. The campaign’s tagline? “Leave Your Worries Behind.”
Unfortunately for the JWT employees who created the joke ads and posted them on a website for creative advertising, women appearing to be kidnapped and tortured is rather a sensitive topic in India these days. In recent months, the highly publicized gang rapes of an Indian student and a Swiss tourist have shone an unflattering light on India’s treatment of women. Ironically, the ads appeared just days after the Indian Parliament passed sweeping anti-rape legislation designed to better protect women and punish those who would assault them.
THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for WPP, which swiftly fired the offenders and appears to have used its massive clout to make clear that Ford did not see or approve the ads.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Guard the brand fiercely. This isn’t the first time a fake ad or news story has been created in jest, and it won’t be the last; indeed, such antics are an age-old tradition at some agencies. As Ford India CEO Alan Mulally noted with chagrin, steps will be taken to ensure that “no independent person [can do] something like this with the Ford brand and logo” in future. Make sure those who have access to your brand understand the dire consequences of not treating it with respect.