Last September 3, international financial giant Wells Fargo, one of the Big Four US Banks, apologized after artists, actors, writers, musicians and other creatives burst into outrage when they read the bank’s ad that unnecessarily favored STEM degrees over humanities courses. What should have been an inoffensive promotion turned into a PR crisis.
In hindsight, the mistake seems obvious. Many in the marketing and PR industry would probably say to themselves that they would have seen the problem before it went into print because of their experience or insight. However, this blunder is more common than marketers think. Remember the BDO social media snafu? The Henry Sy-owned bank also apologized last year for releasing an ad that favored saving for personal expenses over saving the environment, the world, or the future.
The Unavoidable False Choice
This type of blunder isn’t by nature a marketing mistake; it’s actually a logical fallacy. Known as the false choice or false dilemma, the fallacy arises in a situation that offers only a limited number of choices when another alternative exists. In the BDO example, it is perfectly possible to save money while saving the environment. While in the Wells Fargo instance, Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May demonstrates that an individual can pursue both science and humanities. Additionally, many creative people, such biologist-turned-comedian Lisa Kudrow, switch from STEM fields to find success in the arts.
Unfortunately, the problem with Wells Fargo’s or BDO’s message wasn’t caught by their undoubtedly smart marketers and executives because of the nature of the profession. It’s ingrained in marketing to deliberately create false choices. Marketers use it often to create endless variations of ads that compare Brand X to Brand Y even when Alternative Z is available. It’s not surprising to find that many are so used to thinking in this manner – in terms of a brand and its competitors – that it escapes into areas where it doesn’t work.
However, taking a Philo class to eliminate the fallacy won’t solve the issue. The False Dilemma is effective at forcing a choice or an outcome. In fact, limiting choices help sales. It’s even helpful for consumers who don’t want alternative products and just need to compare Brand X vs. the others. In rare cases, the fallacy is intentionally invoked to point people to a third alternative. The better solution is to avoid creating the wrong false choice.
Formulating the Right False Choice
The most effective way is stop creating choices that involve the target market in any way. It’s unfortunate for Wells Fargo and BDO that as banks, their market is everyone with savings. Whether the person is a botanist or an environmentalist, they’re both potential customers who were insulted by their ads. On the other hand, diet supplements and gyms can offer the option of ‘get fit or get fat’ without penalty because everybody who doesn’t want to be beach body ready will never be part of the target demographic. In fact, the negative publicity from outraged body positivists can fuel sales.
A simple method to avoid offending target buyers is to keep the choice focused on the product. Unless they’re brand advocates, no customer gets angry when Brand X and Brand Y start a PR game of one-upmanship. Competition is a part of business.
But it’s also important to remember to check the overall message with a fresh mind. Deadlines and stress lower people’s critical thinking. Editing after a good night’s sleep can reveal blunders that were hidden during the rush to produce anything – especially when the message lends itself to a False Dilemma. With slight but meaningful changes in the copy, both Wells Fargo and BDO could have stayed true to their message and saved themselves from trouble.
As members of the PR and marketing industry, artificially limiting the buyer’s choices is part of the job. However, it’s crucial to create that scenario in just the right way to avoid angering potential customers. Take care before it becomes a cause for crisis communications.