Many dislike Kia's offer to help Sudan's poor

MIKE O'DONNELL

Last updated 05:00 03/11/2012

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OPINION: Top Gear host, and champion of the politically unsound, Jeremy Clarkson, has a real knack for offending people.

One of his more infamous taunts came in his lead-in to a Korean car review where he noted that its builders eat dogs, a line guaranteed to make buyers feel queasy, and enrage the likes of the local manufacturers, Hyundai and Kia.

However, last week Kia managed to directly enrage people around the world with its supposedly heartfelt campaign to support World Vision's 2012 Global End Poverty Campaign, and specifically to end hunger in South Sudan.

To do this Kia ran emotive advertisements of a small, tearful African girl with the tagline "1 Like = 1 Day Food for 1 Family". Below this was an arrow connecting the advertisement to the "Like" button on its Facebook brand page.

The takeout for many people was very clear: Kia was effectively soliciting "likes" in exchange for putting food into the mouths of the under-nourished and the oppressed in Sudan.

Unsurprisingly the campaign has backfired. The comments came thick and fast, accusing Kia of everything from emotional blackmail to cheapening the value of human life.

One that summed it up read: "Kia you disgust me, fishing for likes on the basis of donating 1 day's nutrition for a family per click. Either donate or don't, the emotional blackmail of ‘if you don't click it will be one less family who will benefit' is sickening."

Kia later changed the wording to: "click here to end her tears", but it was too little, too late. To misjudge public sentiment is an ironic reflection of a company whose brand slogan is "the power to surprise". However, it should be no surprise, given an earlier social media outing by the bicycle makers from Seoul had blown up in a similar vein.

Last year, Kia had another social media breakdown on its hands when an advertisement for dual air-conditioning featured a peachy keen primary school girl who morphed into a busty sex-bomb offering anatomy lessons. Social media tore it apart and Kia was condemned by American news website Business Insider for appearing to promote paedophilia.

This overlap between social media and advertising has delivered both opportunities and challenges for business and regulators. Giving your clients a voice is a wonderful thing when they are in tune with you.

But in Kia's example the discordant din will undermine the brand and most likely deliver a net negative income. And Kia doesn't have the market cornered here, considering the likes of adidas with the Rugby World Cup jerseys and Qantas with the #QantasLuxury Twitter meltdown.

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It also begs the question as to whether social media should be regulated to hold brands to account when the medium is being exploited to deliver an advertiser's message.

It was this challenge that prompted the Advertising Standards Authority to issue advice on how it would treat social media a few weeks ago. The key question here was: "How should the ASA treat user-generated content on social media websites, and was social media properly within its jurisdiction?"

The ASA's guidance note on social media was interesting, if a tad hopeful for a body that seeks to control an industry through self-regulation.

It identified three examples of social media activity that it would classify as advertising. First, when a company proactively solicits content from people on a product or service and merges it with its own advertising; second, when a company reproduces user-generated content in its own advertisements; or third, when a company solicits content and then puts this on its own website.

The ASA reckons any of these three can fairly be seen as advertising and should be held accountable to the Advertising Code. So if you post a comment about how great your Kia is, then it's not advertising.

But if Kia runs a competition inviting people to post comments about their Sportages, then this is advertising. That would mean if Kia ran the "click here to end her tears" locally, it probably would have been caught by the code.

The ASA even went a step further, suggesting that if Twitter users get paid to endorse things, they should use the hashtag #ad to indicate this.

While a fine idea in practice, I'm unsure if we will see the various celebrity Tweeters flocking to embrace this one.

Interestingly the ASA's line

is a bit softer than that of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which has confirmed that it views any false or misleading comments on a company's social media page as part of the brand's marketing communications, regardless of whether it's user-generated or self-generated.

The ASA's social media advisory is now live, so it will be fascinating to see who will be the first advertiser to get slapped. Meanwhile, I'm guessing Kia will probably take a more thoughtful approach from now on.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an ecommerce manager, author and professional director. He once ate dog by mistake and has felt queasy ever since.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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