Disturbing print ads that went viral on Mar. 22 sparked furious backlash this week against Ford
. The ads depicted women bound and gagged in the back of a Ford Figo.
Thing is, Ford didn't have anything to do with it. Employees at the JWT agency in India created the ads entirely on their own initiative. The same individuals uploaded the work to Ads of the World, a website where people in the advertising business post their work. According to Advertising Age
, they also submitted the mockups to India’s top ad awards program.
The ad was never requested, seen, or approved by Ford or even their agency.
Most people agree the fault lies with the individuals who created and uploaded the images, as well as JWT India for a lack of supervision. According to MarketWatch
, JWT India fired the employees responsible for the ads.
Perhaps a small part of the blame could be attributed to Ford because its oversight of the agency was imperfect, but this is surely a minor sin of omission.
RELATED: Ford’s PR team worked all weekend on ad crisis
The court of public opinion’s ruling
However, in the court of public opinion Ford gets the blame—its logo is on the ads. Even though the full story has been widely reported, most people only see the images on social media and never read the articles. Very few people outside of the advertising business have any idea of the role of JWT in this affair or the practice of bored creatives making artwork for ideas they would never dare propose to clients.
A key lesson from this affair it is that if your name is on the ad, you will get blamed even if you had nothing to do with it. For instance, many websites still show the Southern Comfort "Liquid Panty Remover" ad (here's an example
) and the BMW “You know that you're not the first” used car ad (example
), both of which were widely debunked as fakes.
Ironically, Ford contributed to the confusion when it apologized for the Indian ads
. Normally I encourage people and organizations to apologize when they upset people, but this is one of those cases where it has the unintended effect of making people assume they have done something wrong. Perhaps Ford would be been better advised to insist that JWT apologize, since its role in the failure of oversight was apparently greater.
The inevitable conclusion is that the only way to protect against this kind of reputation crisis is to be extremely strict about what employees of the agencies do with your branding. Companies need to make it clear they will not work with any agency that fails to have a zero tolerance policy.
In the pre-Internet days, creatives could have fun with fake ads and share them with their friends, but this is simply not possible today when images can spread worldwide in hours. In this situation, allowing people to put your branding on potentially controversial fake materials is about as sensible as keeping the rat poison on the shelf right next to the sugar. It's a pointless risk not worth taking.
Andrew Hennigan is a consultant, speaker and writer on professional communication topics. He writes Andrew Hennigan's Communications Blog, where a version of this article originally ran.