Most advertisers dream of the day their work goes viral. But the latest ad campaign to light up the internet wasn’t created by an advertising company … nor was it commissioned by the client it named.
The situation, while far from common, demonstrates how the lines of brand ownership have blurred in recent years.
“Historically Hardcore,” a series of print ads comparing historical figures to modern celebrities, climbed to the top of social bookmarking sites last week. Most people attributed the work to the Smithsonian Museum, since its name and logo appeared on each ad. In reality, the ads were the creation of students Jenny Burrows and Matthew Kappler.
“We got an assignment from a teacher, telling us to do print advertisements for the Smithsonian Museums that appealed to teenagers and college students,” Burrows wrote in an email on March 21. “They’ve been online since 2009, and haven’t gotten any response until this past week.”
No one knows why the ads went viral two years later. But after getting a call from a Washington D.C. news anchor, Burrows decided to tell the Smithsonian that she was the designer. The Museum replied not with enthusiasm, but with a demand to remove its name and logo from all instances of the ads.
Get Your Hands Off My Brand
Some companies would have been thrilled by the free publicity. After all, advertisers spend millions of dollars to create web content in the hopes that it will go viral. (Just look at the SmartWater video featuring Jennifer Aniston.)
Was the Smithsonian smart to remove its name from work that had been generating mostly positive press? The Museum itself seems conflicted. Its official blog, Around The Mall, called the print ads “right up our alley,” saying that “these aren’t from the Smithsonian Institution, but a round of applause is in order to Kappler for his irreverent and fun designs.”
Shortly after the post was published, a clarification was added: “The Around the Mall team speaks for only ourselves and not the Institution.” Less than a day later, the post was deleted.
Smithsonian Chief Spokesperson Linda St. Thomas explained. “I think I can say in general that we would not use Genghis Khan in a Smithsonian advertising campaign,” she wrote via email on March 22. “It’s great when people get excited about the Smithsonian. [But] once the images were circulated on the Internet, the fact that it was a student project and not an official Smithsonian ad was lost.”
The Bigger Message About Brand Ownership
It’s a risk every business now faces: as an online fan base grows, so does the potential for fan-created content. This content could go unnoticed, or it could go viral.
Should you stifle your fans’ enthusiasm by discouraging this content? Or should you encourage it, and risk being associated with materials that are offensive and off-brand?
Without the Smithsonian’s knowledge, Burrows’ ads gave its museums new relevance to a wide audience of Internet users. It also offended a few people in the process. But by yanking its association from the ads without a public explanation, the Smithsonian alienated itself from this fledgling fan base before it could forge a relationship.
Ironically, few people may have noticed. While Burrows removed the Smithsonian’s name and logo from the print ads on her site, the originals are still generating buzz on countless blogs, websites and Facebook pages. They’ve even inspired a few knockoffs.
Perhaps the question about brand ownership isn’t a question at all. Perhaps it’s just a matter of adapting to a new marketplace. And in this marketplace, the mob rules.