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Ragú Apologizes to Dads, Throws Mom Bloggers Under the Bus. So What's Next?

Last week’s PR clustergrab focused on a recent video from Ragú’s Mom’s the World campaign. The driver of the campaign seems to be various contests which funnel consumers to the Ragu Facebook page.  The Facebook page hosts videos content connected to the team of blogger “Ragú Ambassadors.”  The videos feature mom bloggers having topical conversations, and the “What Happens When Dads Cook” episode blew the lid off the heretofore rather bland campaign last week.

Ragu’s Twitter channel spammed some dads in the social media space to stir the dialogue pot, and either got what they were looking for or bit off more than they could chew. Marketer C.C. Chapman posted about being offended at the stereotypical representation of inept dad’s in the kitchen as well as offering a critique of the sloppy Twitter outreach, and many other dad bloggers and marketers amplified his message or posted their own takes on the situation, garnering many more shares and retweets than the two Facebook recommends garnered by the video itself.

It was a hot mess of opinions, as these things tend to be. Ragú was slow to respond, but eventually spoke to Chapman on the phone, and weighed in (via an anonymous spokesperson) in blog comments on some sites. On  Chip Griffin’s Custom Scoop blog, a Ragú avatar representing the brand said they have been hoping to involve dads more in the campaign, admit that their outreach needing improving, but defended the messaging by basically throwing their mom blog ambassadors (in this case bloggers Kim Tracy Prince, Renee Ross and Whitney Moss) under the proverbial bus. From Ragú’s comment:

Thanks for your thoughts on this. We simply asked: What is dinnertime like when dad cooks? The Mom bloggers are unscripted — that’s their point of view. Had a different set of bloggers been in the video, the content would have been different and you may not have seen their statements as a stereotype. Our program is meant to serve open and real talk about dinnertime. All opinions are welcome.

Ouch. That’s patently unfair, when it is obvious that the posing of the question in and of itself, and the editing of the videos, is in the hands of a honed marketing team who would not release a product that didn’t load consumers with the proper takeaways messages, didn’t pass legal muster, and a laundry list of objective reviews. If they aren’t going to own that and back up the ambassadors who obviously felt as though they were creating the type of content Ragú was paying them for, what exactly are the terms of endorsement? Perhaps the term Ambassador needs to be replaced. Minesweeper, maybe. Canary? Sing for us please, blogger, though you’ll be the first to go down when the smoke gets thick.

Truthfully, however, there was no way Ragú could answer all of the fragments of their critiqued campaign, because the dad stereotypes was not the only problem discussed. Opinions were all over the place: don’t stereotype dads, engage with social media better, good parents don’t use canned sauce so I don’t believe anything proponents could say, the ambassadors aren’t diverse enough, the campaign is pointless, the campaign is fine, complainers are over-reacting whiners, PR stunts suck, mommy bloggers suck, bloggers offering free advice are just trying to get the job for themselves, Ragú can’t truly talk about their product or they’d have to explain the nutritional problems with it…and on and on. And there was plenty of “who cares” mixed in, as well.

They did say they would talk with more dads about busting stereotypes, though, which was the intended centerpiece of the discussion. For example, Doug French wrote this about the issue in his recent Babble Voices blog The Turbid Spume:

Ragú has been late to the discussion, but they’ve indicated that they didn’t mean to offend the dads. And I believe them. The best way to back that up, though, is to create a similar video with dads and give us some equal time. If their target demographic is still moms, they can still make a strong impression on them.

I don’t think that will help, though, it’s just more of the same old thing, a video only a few people in the marketing bubble will watch unless required to do so for a contest entry, offering artificial dialogue to a question no one is really asking. The core problem is deeply rooted in the belief systems of marketers whose entire model of understanding audience interests is rooted in an 1950′s view of family life.

We don’t live like Ozzie and Harriet anymore, and we certainly don’t have networks of dialogue defined by aspirational demographics. So advertisers and PR companies who approach online conversation like it’s a more interactive version of television and who define “family” in old-fashioned terms are missing the mark, and their work falls apart under any scrutiny.  That’s why the crazy clustergrabs of critiques. It’s all so tenuous, these campaigns crash and burn if you actually stop to look at them.

Ragú moms talking about dads in the kitchen, Ragú dads talking about dads in the kitchen? Come on!  No one wants to see any of that. Those old ideas ARE your father’s Oldsmobile. And they are failing. Brands don’t always hear why they fail, because mostly people roll their eyes at shallow campaigns and try to ignore the goofiness. But silence doesn’t mean success, not at all.

The very conversation prompt of moms talking about dads begged stereotypes, yes, because more importantly it simply isn’t relevant to how most people live, including single parents, same-sex parents, non-parents, homes where two people both go to work, or work at home or some combination there-in, multi-generational homes, homes with caretakers to help manage disabilities, and so. The very question reveals an out-of-date understanding of family, economics, social convention—all of it. It is a question you would ask June Cleaver as small talk at a cocktail party, but truthfully, I think even June Cleaver would have been bored with it.  Adding a few dads might help, but not enough and not in any meaningful way. It’s just a tiny band aid when a major break in the system is needed.

The lack of complexity in marketing is a problem on television, too — but at least with insipid 30 second spots we can pretty much ignore what is put forth. Marketers just hope we hear their name, maybe catch a chord of brand values, then remember their brand equity in the aisle.

But that just won’t cut it online. We talk. That’s the whole point and the amazing potential. Brands, marketers and PR agencies don’t need to learn how to use Twitter or even how to avoid stereotyping dads as much as they need a paradigm shake to their old world views. But that means tapping people for much more complex service than as Canaries “Ambassadors” who are expected to create and share old messages using new tools, and then serve as handy speed bumps when the bus careens out of control.

Vintage image source: Synaptic Happenings at Flickr.

Deb Rox blogs at Deb on the Rocks.

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