AFLAC: The End of the Duck

“‘Gilbert’s recent comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor and certainly do not represent the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac.'” That’s the quote from the insurance company’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer in Tuesday’s New York Times.

I am not about to come to Gilbert Gottfried’s defense. The man who has been voicing the AFLAC duck in TV spots for years doesn’t need any help. But companies that hitch their brands to comedians or other public figures obviously do need help when they lose [control of] their voice.

But this post isn’t going to be a POV on the merits and pitfalls of using spokespeople in marketing. Instead, it’s a quick note about the AFLAC situation followed by an observation about social media.

1) AFLAC was right to fire Gottfried. What happened in the Japanese earthquake last week is unfathomable. What’s happening there now is too. There is absolutely NO room for humor on that score.

But if I were the brand management team at AFLAC, I’d also need to ask myself what Gottfried’s other “comedic” Tweets have to say about the brand he used to represent. Go and take a look at his @RealGilbert Twitter feed and you’ll find a whole library of what I, as an agency man, would be nervous–nay, uncomfortable–explaining to my clients.

The fact that Gottfried hadn’t been fired a long time ago on account of off-color humor begs the question whether team AFLAC might have been more concerned about where his recent jokes had been directed (i.e., Japan, which per the Times piece is a major market for the company) rather than what the jokes themselves contained.

Question: Had the jokes been directed at a natural disaster happening in a different part of the world, one where AFLAC is not as active, would the voice of the duck have still been fired?

2) Brands and their agencies should not need speed bumps such as the ones the Times outlined to tell them that some form of social media policy is required of those individuals speaking on their behalf online. The traditional, old school process of preparing a personality, CEO, etc. for a public event, media interview, or other such forum naturally included some form of media training. It should therefore come as no surprise that the process of preparing similar brand proxies for a social media stint needs to include something similar.

I’m sure we’ll continue to see cases like AFLAC’s for years. We need look no further than the old media for proof of that. Those aforementioned media trainings simply cannot help some individuals who just don’t have the knack for getting in front of a microphone or camera lens. And the press oftentimes devour mistakes in earnest. Remember the damaging comment that sunk a certain someone’s presidential aspirations in 2004: “I actually voted for [it] before I voted against it”? And then there’s Tiger Woods. ‘Nuff said.

Hopefully, though, the increasingly fuzzy lines developing between individuals’ business and personal lives will make it clear that we marketers have to do our homework before agreeing to let someone else speak on behalf of our clients and brands.

DISCLAIMER: I was NEVER a fan of the old Oh Henry! campaign.

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