A campaign by a milk marketer to address the serious subject of premenstrual syndrome in a humorous fashion — by focusing on how men purportedly suffer from its effects along with women — is being ended early after an outpouring of criticism and comments about the tone of the ads and even a parody on FunnyorDie.com.
The campaign was introduced July 11 by the California Milk Processor Board and its longtime advertising agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, part of the Omnicom Group. The centerpiece of the campaign, which declares that "milk can help reduce the symptoms of PMS," was a microsite, or special website, that used the Web address everythingidoiswrong.org and addressed itself to men as "your home for PMS management."
The content of the microsite included "pre-approved apologies" from men to the women in their lives with PMS like "I’m sorry for the thing or things I did or didn’t do" as well as features like an "emergency milk locator."
The microsite was scheduled to be live through the end of August. Instead, it was replaced Thursday morning with another microsite, with the Web address gotdiscussion.org, that is intended to foster conversations about the campaign’s premise and approach, as well as provide more information about how drinking milk could help ease the symptoms of PMS.
Computer users who type "everythingidoiswrong.org" into their browsers are redirected to "gotdiscussion.org."
(The gotdiscussion.org name is meant to echo the theme of the California milk ads since 1993, "Got milk?" The theme is familiar beyond California because the California board licenses it for use by national dairy marketers.)
The reaction to the campaign, and the subsequent changes, are indicative of the pitfalls in the age of social media to producing ads that seek to be noticed by being daring, provocative or shocking.
The ability of consumers to quickly gather on websites like Facebook and Twitter and share their opinions with potentially millions of other consumers, as well as the creators of the ad campaigns they dislike, means that it is becoming harder for marketers to walk that fine line between getting noticed and getting berated.
A recent example was the Groupon campaign that made its debut on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 6, with commercials that seemed to make light of issues like the plight of Tibet. Groupon first tried to manage the backlash that rapidly developed but soon found itself forced to withdraw the campaign. Before the milk campaign was introduced, executives at the California milk board and Goodby, Silverstein acknowledged that it was intended to "get attention" and "ignite some social media discussion and conversation." But the executives seem taken aback at how quickly the complaints came in — many only a day or two after the campaign began — and how intense, even angry, the critics were.
"It certainly wasn’t our intention to offend people," said Steve James, executive director of the California milk board, based in San Clemente, Calif. "We regret that.
"No question, with some people we have stepped over the line," he added. "We certainly misjudged the heat generated by the people who thought we stepped over the line."
Text on the home page of the new microsite acknowledges that "regrettably, some people found our campaign about milk and PMS to be outrageous and misguided," adding that others "thought it funny and educational.
"And we apologize to those we offended," the text states.
The microsite offers links to articles and comments that both praised and damned the campaign. The negative remarks include "This is an incredibly sexist campaign," "The campaign probably will appeal to men, as sad as that makes me" and "Wrong: Milk ad campaign blames PMS, insults women."
Those negative remarks represent only a sampling of what has been a flood of complaints about the ads.
Besides the criticism, there has also been sharp commentary about the campaign. For instance, the humor website FunnyorDie.com posted parodies of the campaign that deemed it misogynistic.
The goal now is "to turn down the heat," James said. "There’s no sense in keeping up a website that’s like waving a red flag to some people."
Taking down everythingidoiswrong.org is "not a failure in any way," he added. "I don’t see it as ending it or pulling the plug.
"We accomplished what we set out to accomplish," James said, citing visits to the microsite and conversations about the campaign.
Now the milk board is taking the campaign "to a place to have a more toned-down, more reasoned discussion," he added.
Jeff Goodby, the co-chairman with Rich Silverstein at Goodby, Silverstein, said he was "surprised" by the firestorm the campaign produced.
"It’s certainly more controversial than we expected it to be," Goodby said. "After three days, this thing was off the hook."
"Rather than to continue the campaign," he added, "it’s better to have this bigger discussion, which will get more readership."
Ending the campaign before it was to end does not concern Goodby because, he said, "we think it’s served its purpose." The intent was to "bring up a topic in a humorous way," he added, and "in no way was this done cynically" — that is, designed to provoke consumers deliberately in a way that would generate publicity for the product.
The response "shows the power of social media as much as anything I’ve worked on," Goodby said. "It’s a real tribute to the power of the Internet."
Goodby, Silverstein and the milk board introduced a similar campaign in 2005 that was meant to humorously present men as suffering when the women in their lives had PMS. That campaign also drew complaints that it was sexist and offensive, but it continued through its planned run.
"It was a different world in 2005," Goodby said.