Monday, June 14, 2010

Fast, cheap and satisfaction guaranteed

When I talk to clients about social media strategies, I tell them that social media communities can sometimes self-police quite efficiently. This morning, I saw a post on the Sociological Images blog that shows how this regulation by consensus can actually be much more powerful than traditional means of enforcing advertising standards.

One day, residents of Minneapolis woke up to this billboard, and were offended. And not just by the painful pun, horrible art direction, or tasteless concept. It turns out that residents of one particular neighbourhood where the ad was erected had just gone through a major community purge of street prostitution. "There are still lawn signs up along Cedar saying, 'Keep johns out,'" explains 9th Ward denizen Stacey Burns in MinnPost's coverage of the incident.

Now, Stacey hadn't even seen the billboard in real life yet. She saw a photo of it on a friend's Facebook page, and realized it was near her house. She then called the service provider, USI, to complain, but didn't get anywhere.

So she re-posted the image on her own FB page:

There are many comments on there from friends who said they had complained to USI but were told the company did some test marketing "and everybody loved it."

This viral action eventually got the attention of City Council Member Gary Schiff. He talked to city staff about it, and they told him they had been talking to USI's founders for three days but had gotten nowhere. He called USI himself, but said his calls were never returned.

USI, by the way, has a 10-year, $12.5 million contract to provide Minneapolis' citywide Wi-Fi service. But since the Councillor had no more luck getting client service than the average ISP customer, he decided to go after the media supplier.

From MinPost:

"I looked at the photo [in Burns' post] and saw the Clear Channel logo and remembered that Clear Channel was extremely supportive in donating billboard space for the city's anti-prostitution campaign," said Schiff.

He called the advertising company's vice president and e-mailed him an image of Burns' Facebook page. "Thirty minutes later, he called back and said, 'They'll be down tomorrow,' " said Schiff.

Schiff said he knew the company had strong decency guidelines.

Knowing he was on to a good thing, Councillor Schiff posted his triumph on his own Facebook page, where it quickly elicited dozens of comments and "like" votes.

Another Council member, Elizabeth Glidden, made sure she got a piece of the action by calling on USI as well:

"My message to them was, 'I hope you're taking these down right now,' " she said. "Was it persuasive for me to say I'm shocked and disgusted? Yes, I'm sure it was."

USI pulled down the boards, but Operations Manager Sam Turner claims they did so voluntarily. Although he is hardly contrite:

"We didn't mean to offend anyone," Turner told MinnPost. "Our response to the overall situation is we didn't, and don't, feel that the spokesmodel from the ad looks like a prostitute. We've seen way worse."

So what's the moral of the story? You have a right to offend people, to some extent, when you buy mainstream media. But just be aware that when you piss off today's fully-connected vox populi, political action through Facebook outrage is fast, cheap and satisfaction guaranteed.


  1. I think you missed a key piece. USI Wireless has a 10 year contract with the City of Minneapolis:

    "The City of Minneapolis signed a 10-year contract with US Internet of Minnetonka to provide Minneapolis with cutting-edge broadband technology. This has made Minneapolis one of the first large cities in the United States to go wireless. US Internet has funded, built, and manages a wireless network covering all 59 square miles of Minneapolis, providing residents, businesses and visitors with wireless broadband access anywhere in the City. The network also allows the City to deliver services more efficiently and effectively than ever before. The wireless contract also includes benefits to the community that go far beyond what any other city in the country has negotiated.

    The network was completed in December of 2009 and service is available throughout the city of Minneapolis."

  2. Oh, and they're still (last I heard) on the bathroom doors of local restaurants.

  3. No I didn't, "Anon".

    Paragraph 7:

    "USI, by the way, has a 10-year, $12.5 million contract to provide Minneapolis' citywide Wi-Fi service."

    I just didn't copypasta the rest of your press release to go along with it ;)

  4. I intended to swing back here to comment last month--great synopsis, Tom!

    The saga lurches forward: although USI pulled the billboards as promised, copies of the ad appeared in men's restrooms throughout Minneapolis in June. In response, as if to thumb his nose at the activism that provoked the billboards' removal--and to demonstrate his commitment to the failed campaign--USI Wireless' President, Joe Caldwell, appears in at least one version of the ad, pictured here at Park Avenue and 9th Street in downtown Minneapolis.

    I'm hoping to persuade USI to make a meaningful contribution to the Women's Foundation of Minnesota or another organization that works to promote the safety and well-being of sex workers and to increase housing and educational opportunities for young people.