What Springsteen’s DWI arrest means for Jeep’s marketing; no long-term damage expected

TMZ originally reported the DWI news on Wednesday, but countless mainstream publications followed up on it, inserting Jeep into a negative story at a time when it had planned to keep plugging the ad. The spot was originally intended to air only once, during the Super Bowl, according to a person familiar with the matter. The two-minute spot from Doner showed Springsteen making a plea for unity in the deeply divided country. It directed viewers to a special website called “The Road Ahead.”

The site, which includes scenes from the ad but none of Springsteen, remains active, plugging the brand’s heritage while pushing new models and the brand’s EV ambitions. 

The Boss was not expected to be in any future Jeep marketing, but the DWI incident robbed the brand of the chance to garner more buzz online from the ad, which had already amassed more than 37 million views on YouTube before it was pulled early Wednesday afternoon.

Still, brand experts say Jeep did the right thing to remove it.

“They did make a decision fairly quickly — that was the path of least risk for them,” Karen Doyne, a crisis communications expert at Doyne Strategies, said in an interview. “No car company wants to be associated with the idea of drunk or irresponsible driving.”

On her LinkedIn page, she suggested the incident is a lesson to other brands: “I’ve counseled several companies whose celebrity endorsers have gotten into trouble, but this one is particularly sticky for Jeep given the link to drunk driving,” she wrote. “Bottom line: Crisis Plans should anticipate potential controversies involving celebrity spokespersons or other high-visibility endorsers (such as partners in charitable initiatives) so the company will be able to make decisions swiftly if the time comes. Don’t wait — as too many companies do — until your celebrity ends up in hot water and pulls your company in behind them.”

Another crisis communications expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity said: “The only way this becomes a bigger issue for [Jeep] is if it were to come out that they knew about this … and that they somehow looked the other way. That would be very hard to overcome.”

More details emerged about the incident on Thursday. The Asbury Park Press reported that Springsteen was charged with the DWI after “having a shot of alcohol with fans after he rode to Sandy Hook on his motorcycle.” Citing an unnamed source, the newspaper reported that his blood-alcohol content was 0.02. “The legal threshold indicating intoxication for driving purposes in New Jersey is .08, which calls into question why Springsteen was even charged with driving while intoxicated,” the newspaper reported, quoting the same source.

But Fox News, citing statements of probable cause that it obtained, reports that Springsteen initially refused to take a preliminary breath test. Fox cites a statement from a park ranger alleging that “the Patron bottle that the shot was poured out of was completely empty (750ml),” adding that “I asked Springsteen if he was leaving and he confirmed that he was going to drive out of the park.”

Even before the negative PR around the DWI arrest, Jeep’s ad was not seen as a runaway hit, falling short of the nearly universal acclaim the brand got last year with its lighthearted Super Bowl ad starring Bill Murray reprising his role in “Groundhog Day.” Some critics took issue with the use of a Christian cross in the Springsteen ad as not speaking to all audiences, while other people have questioned the viability of people finding a middle ground in the current political environment. 

The ad placed 12th on the USA Today Ad Meter. (The Bill Murray ad placed first last year.) In the annual Super Bowl ad review conducted by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, which measures the strategic effectiveness of ads, Jeep earned a very average “C” Score. 

But The Harris Poll showed the spot as boosting Jeep’s brand equity, falling in the top half of that score among all Super Bowl advertisers. The ad led to an increase of 93 percent in web traffic to Jeep brand pages on online retail site cars.com. That placed the brand behind Cadillac (whose ad put a new spin on “Edward Scissorhands”) but ahead of Toyota.

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