Wednesday, November 9, 2011

When the air is on fire

Herman Cain.

Penn State University.

Bank of America.

When the leering press descend on you, it is like the air is on fire.

From the breath of life to an all consuming inferno. Danger in every direction. No way out. Feeding on itself with no clear source of fuel except human speculation.

Doesn't matter if you are in the right or in the wrong. The media smells a hot story, and they will do most anything for a scoop.

I've experienced it twice.

It happened when Pete was killed. It's amazing how fast folks with microphones, cameras and deadlines can find your front door.

The other time was a business situation.

In 1996, I was the Chief Marketing Officer at Haggar Clothing Co.

We introduced a new khaki in September of that year. It really was a great pant. The kind of clothing item you just fall in love with because it is soft, fits great, looks great. It was even wrinkle-free.

Haggar was #2 to Dockers in the khaki world. As a strategy, we took every opportunity to let them and the rest of the world know we had better mousetraps.

So, we named it The Ultimate Khaki.

And to prove it was The Ultimate Khaki, we asked our advertising agency to convince America that men really would love this pant.

Goodby, Silverstein & Partners were, and might still be, the best agency going. They invented cultural icons like, Got Milk? Louie the wisecracking chameleon for Budweiser. And more recently, Chevy Runs Deep.

Our agency created one of the best televisions spots ever. It was funny. It was surprising. It sold pants. Too bad it only got to run twice.

The commercial opened with a father rushing his family out of their burning home.

As you see them running thru the flames, the camera would cut to their pet parakeet. Sweet little bird, chirping away, looking a bit anxious on the perch in his cage.

Once the family is safe outside, the father has an "OH NO" moment.

He rushes back into the blazing house. In his pajamas, he runs like a gazelle. More quick cuts of the bird. The man jumps over burning timbers. He is on a desperate rescue mission.

We see him searching frantically thru the flames and the smoke and the panic.

And then . . .

He finds his Ultimate Khaki. Safe and sound.

We all thought it was fabulous. Our retailers thought it was fabulous. The consumers we tested it with thought it was fabulous.

We put it on network TV in the Major League Baseball playoffs. You remember, that year when Jeffrey Maier became a household name when as a 12 year old kid he deflected a ball into the right field stands at Yankee Stadium out of the glove of Tony Tarasco of the Baltimore Orioles?

We aired it that first night of the playoffs. Twice.

And response from the market the next morning was terrific.

But on that morning after, a note appeared in a newspaper in a small town in Wisconsin.

It seems that our commercial had caught the attention of the chief of the local fire department. He was very upset that a commercial would depict what fire departments preach against. That being, returning to a burning house to retrieve anything.

And he was especially torqued off because that very week was National Fire Safety Week.

And so, the reporter for that small paper with a circulation of less than 2,000 called me. He wanted to know if we were going to listen to the concerns of his local fire chief and stop running the commercial.

I told the reporter that we could understand the chief's concern, but this was clearly just a silly commercial. It was a harmless joke.

The reporter shared my thoughts with the chief. And the chief's response was to say that we should do the honorable thing and stop airing the commercial.

And the reporter wrote what the chief said. And then the Associated Press picked up the story. And they called wanting to know what we were going to do.

The story had become small town fire chief vs. $500 million company.

Haggar was a great corporate citizen of Dallas. We knew the fire chief. I called and asked to meet with him.

I showed him the commercial. He laughed. Alot. And then he looked at me and said, "Alan, I get it. It's a joke. But if you don't take it off the air, the fire community will tear you apart in the media. You can put words on the screen to say, 'Dramatization'. You can put words on the screen that say, 'This is a joke. Don't ever do this in real life.' Alan, it won't matter. They'll win and you'll lose. "

By the time I could drive the 10 minutes back to the office, reporters were calling from around the country. ABC News. The New York Times.

"What is your response to the fire chief in Wisconsin?"

Calls to our PR guy in New York. Calls to the agency in San Francisco. Talks with other members of management.

The commerical was scheduled to air again that night. Less than three hours away.

We had spent over a half million dollars to produce the spot. Heck, the fire chief of El Segundo, California was at the shoot to supervise safety, and he didn't object!

The Wall Street Journal calls. The CBS Evening News calls and wants a statement for their broadcast this evening.

We had lots of options.

And what to do can still be debated.

We pulled the commercial. And we sent out a press release saying so.

We decided to listen to the fire chief of a small town in Wisconsin. Because we believed if we didn't, we would be barbecued in the press.

We were stewards of a great company and a great brand. The long term interest of Haggar was more important than short term sales and profits.

There were more than a few who disagreed. And maybe they were right.

I do know our answer satisfied the press, and we became a non-story as fast as we became the center of their universe.

I still have the plaque presented to us by the Dallas Fire Department for making a decision on behalf of public safety.

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