The racy photo that's got Puma steamed.

The racy photo that's got Puma steamed.

The racy photo that's got Puma steamed.

Advertising deconstructed.
April 15 2003 11:23 AM

Puma's Problem

The racy photo that's got a sneaker company steamed.

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Monday's column looked at an advertiser who's trying to use the Web to generate buzz. But what happens when the "viral" buzz is not to a marketer's liking?

Imagine this: A photograph of a young woman in a short skirt, on her knees in front of a standing man; the picture is cropped at the woman's shoulders, so you can't see exactly what's going on, but you can see enough to make a good guess. Also, some creamy liquid seems to have dripped onto the woman's thigh. Both she and the man are wearing Puma sneakers. There's also a Puma bag in the foreground, and a Puma logo in the corner. The image looks like a Puma ad.

A sneaker ad built around oral sex? Is that plausible? Sure, it's plausible. When this image, or rather two very similar images, started popping up in and around blog-land last month—maybe most notably on a site called Gawker—the initial interest seemed to be sorting out whether these were real ads or parodies. (Prior to showing up on U.S. blogs, the image had circulated a bit in Europe. If you read Hungarian, journalist Szily László wrote a couple of articles for a Hungarian publication on the subject, starting in February. Puma is based in Germany.) A blogger and writer named Felix Salmon posted the images on a multiuser blog site called MemeFirst with the comment, "I'm not 100% sure that these ads are for real, but I wouldn't be at all surprised. Sex sells, so why not?"

Well, Puma didn't see it that way and not only declared the ads fake, but sent out a "cease and desist" letter to various bloggers threatening legal action against anyone posting the "defamatory image." Gawker, puckishly and helpfully, posted the letter and went on to chastise the company for bad marketing sense: "It's the best ad that's been done for your company in years, and you didn't design it. Thousands of people are circulating images emblazoned with your brand and you didn't even pay for product placement."

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This raises a bunch of questions. First: Did Puma make a mistake by resorting to heavy-handed squelch tactics? If it really wanted these images to fade quickly, then yes. Many big corporations have learned the hard way that unleashing scorched-earth tactics on small-fry satirists just gives the naysayers a bigger platform. McDonald's found this out when it sued some leafleteers, sparking the famous McLibel case and giving its opponents a global audience. By contrast, when Negativland—whose found-sound extravaganza "U2" became its most famous song ever after a legal assault from Island Records—put out a soda-industry-skewering disc called Dispepsi, an executive at Pepsi called it "a good listen," and that was pretty much the end of that. (For more on anti-corporate satire and copyright issues, see Illegal-Art.org. Also, here, via brandchannel.com, is a paper from Harvest Communications Inc. looking at the issue from the point of view of targeted companies.)

But what if Puma didn't want these images to fade quickly? Gawker, Felix Salmon, and others have noted pretty much from the beginning the speculation that the whole episode was actually engineered by Puma—a form of super-devious "subviral marketing"—and its denials and threats are all part of a scheme to keep the buzz going. This seems unlikely to me, but on the other hand it would answer the nagging question of why anyone would bother to satirize Puma. Nike is usually the culture-jammer favorite, and if someone wanted to go after a smaller shoemaker, why not Pony, which earlier this year started to use porn star Jenna Jameson in its ads?

Another plausible scenario: Perhaps the images were created as, say, an in-house joke at an ad agency that works with Puma and got out of control. Despite Gawker's praise of the images, I also think this possibility is easily the most flattering to whoever created them. As advertising they strike me as tedious, as satire they're shrill. But as a smutty interoffice giggle, they're first-rate.

Interestingly, around the same time the Puma "ad" made the rounds, a short video purporting to be an ad for Nokia phones was also being widely e-mailed (and still is). It shows a cat getting flung by a ceiling fan. Nokia finally addressed this with a statement saying that the video is "unauthorized" and further explaining that "[t]he offending footage had been proposed to Nokia by an external party but we had categorically rejected it." This response is wise both because a) it actually explains where the video came from; and b) does not threaten to sue a bunch of small-fry bloggers.

It would have been a bit more shrewd of Puma to follow a similar course, but actually things didn't work out too badly for the shoemaker. The brand certainly got some buzz. And while the company came out of the episode seeming heavy-handed to some, plenty of others seem willing to entertain the possibility of a plot that makes Puma marketers seem spectacularly ingenious. Whatever Puma intended—and even if it didn't intend anything at all—there are much worse images for an advertiser to have.