By Alex Altman
“Perception is reality.”
If it’s not the biggest cliché in public relations, it’s a close second. For decades, businesses have taken this maxim as gospel, carefully parsing every word of every press release, commercial script, and speech to make sure it aligns with their desired positioning in the public consciousness.
For most businesses, protecting your image isn’t simply about branding or sales. It’s about survival. One slip of the tongue can have dire consequences. Why else would companies invest in armies of public relations professionals?
Image is everything. So why would a business deliberately attack its own?
Against all odds, self-deprecation has emerged as the latest trend in advertising. For the last couple years, top brands have seemingly been standing in line, waiting for their turn to pie themselves in the face.
Microsoft panned its notoriously outdated Internet Explorer browser. Domino’s copped to ill-conceived product innovations like the “Cookie Pizza.” Australian telecommunications company Optus gave comedian Ricky Gervais a “shedload” of cash to sit on a couch and shill a brand he admittedly had never even heard of.
Kotex, Newcastle Brown Ale and Tide have also run commercials predicated on their or their industry’s inadequacies. Even the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, the standard bearer for obsessive compulsive image-consciousness, joined the act on social media during a lopsided 2016 NFC Championship Game.
Most brands surreptitiously delete Tweets they regret posting within seconds. Not the Cardinals: the Tweet is still up, and has drawn more than 50,000 Retweets.
While humor has long been a tactic used in advertising, it’s fascinating to see brands turn self-deprecation into an earnest form of self-promotion. There are certainly other effective ways to stir interest in your brand. So why this?
While there’s still much to learn about the efficacy of self-deprecation as an advertising strategy, brands who make fun of themselves are certainly getting more for their money than a few cheap laughs. The strategy has helped some brands atone for mistakes, others address the frustrations of consumers, and others show empathy over the triteness of their industry’s advertising.
On a human level, there’s something endearing about a person who can laugh at himself, and this has proven to be the case with brands, too. It shows that they are prone to the same mistakes and vulnerabilities as humans, which in a weird sort of way, makes them more likable to a lot of people.
Although self-deprecation was a strategy formulated by ad men, what can public relations folks learn from it? For starters, candor is a powerful weapon that shouldn’t only be used when you’re backed into a corner. The public has a surprisingly generous capacity to forgive when the mistake is met head-on with contrition and a creative solution.
Does this mean honesty is always the best policy? Not quite. But admitting to a mistake with humility – maybe even a few laughs – is generally a better policy than sweeping the problem into a closet and hoping nobody opens the door