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The consumer of the future: how they rolled Adshel and live exports

Posted on 15/06/2011 by Nathan Scholz in PR disaster
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The modern customer now demands a bottom-line standard of ethical behaviour from service and product providers, and will not entertain anything less. Find out how the "consumer of the future" managed to roll an Adshel campaign and rip the heart out of live exports.

Promoting something shouldn’t involve doing a deal with the devil anymore. The modern customer now demands a bottom-line standard of ethical behaviour from service and product providers, and will not entertain anything less. Times have changed and consumers of information are voting in numbers with their feet, their mouths – and their wallets.

Recent events in the media have highlighted an issue that is fundamental to any good business for our clients – knowing your audience. Not just knowing their demographic or statistical position, but knowing them personally – their standards, their morals and the progressive society in which they live.

In public relations it is essential to continually ask ourselves the question: to whom are we sending our message? Whether it’s a product, an announcement or a cause that we seek to promote, our work is useless if we do not remain relevant to the target audience and the public at large, who will also be exposed to the campaign. So when I refer to the term “consumer”, I am really talking about our audience – the consumer of our message, which if effective, will translate into results.

So that said, who exactly is the consumer of the future? Really they are from any demographic, of any age or any background but with one common denominator: they live in contemporary society. The consumer of the future demands health and safety above all else. The consumer of the future will not accept products or messages that perpetuate cruelty or inequality. And as for the business of our clients, the consumer of the future is one very powerful person.

The concept need not be aspirational either, rather, we are seeing evidence of this savvy person today. Store shelves have changed over the years, and regardless of whether that change is initiated by the consumer or by the law, the fact remains that it is a reflection of the milieu.

The recent Adshel debacle is one such example. It turned a relatively unknown name into the subject of international debate, and for all the wrong reasons. Adshel caved to a negligible amount of pressure to take down safe sex signs for being too “offensive”. The consumer of the future did not like this one bit. Protests ensued and the ads were reinstated within 24 hours.

I spoke with Queensland Association of Healthy Communities (QAHC) General Manager Paul Martin on the morning of the news, and after hearing the list of media outlets with whom he had already interviewed, I knew it was going to be a story. The ads were only commissioned in Queensland, but after receiving far more national and international media coverage than the signs themselves, the only real winner in this story was QAHC. Speaking of orchestrated campaigns, I interestingly also caught wind of one that sought to raise money for reinstatement of the ads through Adshel’s biggest advertising competitors.

No doubt Adshel was trying to show a quick response under (minimal) pressure. The only message, however, that it was truly effective in delivering appeared to be a lack of loyalty to a large client, a penchant for reneging on a commercial agreement and an absence of independent thought.

Adshel afforded QAHC an extra two weeks’ worth of advertising space to try to smooth things over, but the price to its reputation for the decision will no doubt prove far more expensive. To boil the issue down, Adshel forgot about the broad-minded characteristics of the consumer of the future and was heavily punished for doing so.

Similarly, the ban on live exports to Indonesia had the consumer of the future’s fingerprints all over it. There is a growing demand to know where our products come from, and as PR professionals, we need to know that our message is ethical. If it is not, the consumer of the future will be the first to let us know. An increase in sales is one of the key indicators by which PR success can be measured, and if the consumer of the future smells a rat, this department will be the first to also feel it.

The main point for us to remember here as media professionals is our audience. It is easy to forget just how dynamic Queensland is or assume that our audience’s values remain stagnant. We should be careful to never underestimate the intelligence of the people who read our stories. We should be aware of the effect of poor decisions on our clients’ reputations. As we have seen recently, media events will highlight community sentiment – just make sure that when this happens the message being consumed is a positive one.