Every year we can count on a new crop of public relations failures. And 2018 did not disappoint. There were several jaw-dropping teachable moments. Some even produced a few snickers.

Piece of Cake

The Danbury News-Times headline last December said it all: “The Cheesecake Factory’s free cheesecake deal ends in chaos, furious customers, and reports of battling delivery people.”

Talk about every PR professional’s worst nightmare.

The Cheesecake Factory originally cooked up the idea to offer a free piece of cheesecake in celebration of their 40th anniversary. The nationwide plan was to offer 40,000 slices of free cheesecake to customers who ordered through the DoorDash app.

It sounded easy enough. What could go wrong?

Two hours into the promotion, all 40,000 free slices were spoken for. The company increased the number to 60,000. It did little to relieve the mayhem that ensued.

DoorDash drivers packed the restaurants. In Virginia, a fight broke out as drivers picked up their orders. One person was arrested for disorderly conduct. Social media blew up with unhappy people unable to snag their free piece of anniversary cheesecake, in addition to grumbling in-store and online customers.

Key lesson: Think through promotional plans and their ramifications completely before campaign launch.

Domino’s Forever

That was the name of a campaign one enterprising franchise owner came up with in Russia last September. The idea was to give away free pizzas — for life.

The social media campaign kicked off with a bang: “(Sit down please) News can be shocking! If you like surprise and shock, and truly love Domino’s, then read the news further….”

To qualify, people first had to get a tattoo of the Domino’s logo permanently inked “in a prominent place” on their body. And, of course, authenticity of the tattoos would be checked.

Next, they had to post a photo of their newly minted tattoo on social media with the hashtag #DominosForever.

Once the two qualifications were met, the person would receive a certificate guaranteeing them up to 100 free pizzas, per year, for 100 years.

Not long after the initial post, hundreds of people flocked to Russian social media to check out the savory deal. That’s when the clarifications began.

The pizza chain limited the promotion to the first 350 qualified people. Then they issued minimum dimensions for the tattoo. This was followed by a body chart designating exactly where “visible parts of the body” were that people could place their tattoo.

Originally, the campaign was intended to last two months. It was cancelled after four days. All told, 381 people qualified and snagged the deal.

Key lesson: Do the math. Consider a market test to estimate demand.

Beer fell flat

Slogans, or tag lines, are important. They should be short and memorable. Nike’s ‘Just do it’ is one example that’s been successful since 1988.

Heineken is a beer company with more than 150 years under its keg. They should know a thing or two about marketing and public relations, yet they blew it last March.

The brewer launched a campaign of television and online commercials featuring the tag line ‘sometimes, lighter is better.’ The problem cropped up when one particular ad was criticized as being “racist” and “tone-deaf.”

In the ad, an attentive bartender notices a disappointed female customer looking at a glass of wine glass. He opens a bottle of beer and slides it over multiple surfaces. It passes two African-American women and one man before reaching the wine glass. “Sometimes, lighter is better” pops on the screen. We then see the lighter skinned woman pick up the beer.

To their credit, the company pulled all of the ads and cancelled the campaign after the public backlash.

“We missed the mark, are taking the feedback to heart and will use this to influence future campaigns,” Heineken U.S. said in a media statement.

Key lesson: Think through the many ways words matched with images can be interpreted by the public before producing a campaign.

Maureen Buscher-Dang is a Bakersfield public relations and marketing consultant. She can be contacted through her website www.buschermarketing.com.

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