Richard Gere Fiat Ad

The Marketing Doctor Says:

Richard Gere Fiat Ad Is Just The Latest Saga

In The Risky New World of Global Branding

First, it was Sharon Stone and Dior.  Now it is Richard Gere and Fiat.  Objectionable statements are made.  China reactes angrily.   The companies apologize.

But there’s a big difference.  One was a mistake.  The other has all the earmarks of a marketing strategy.
Sharon S
tone made critical comments about China outside of her role with Dior and the company dumped her –they didn’t want to offend a huge market.
Richard Gere, on the othe
r hand, appears in a commercial made by Fiat driving to Tibet and spending time with a Dalai Lama-type child.  The meaning is obvious to everyone who knows that Gere is one of the biggest Free-Tibet advocates going  –it looks like Fiat is making a pro-Tibetan independence statement.

So what’s going on?  Here is the Marketing Doctor’s take: 

First, I think we’re seeing the future of branding and advertising.  I’ve spoken about how increasingly fragmented the advertising terrain has become.  Companies and products that want to stand out have got to make a racket and one way of doing this is designing advertising and marketing campaigns that get talked about and take on a life of their own.  There is probably no better way of doing this than offending one group’s sensibilities while re-enforcing and complimenting another group’s.  The Fiat ad does this since it was intended for airing in Europe where Free-Tibet sentiment is high.  In the European market, the ad’s message is sure to resonate and build visibility and goodwill for the Fiat brand.

But what about China?  After all, apparently Fiat has plans to expand its operations in China and this ad could hurt those plans and the short/long-term perception of its brand.  Good question.  Here I think the Fiat strategy is bold but, wow, talk about risky. 

For years companies and products have customized their advertising and marketing campaigns for different countries and cultures.  Geographical and language borders have prevented consumers in one market from learning about what a company is doing to attract consumers in another market.  And often companies have employed tactics and used advertising in foreign lands that American consumers would find offensive and might even sour them completely on the brand. 

The Internet has changed the fundamentals of this What-Happens-Stays-In-Vegas game. 

There’s a reason why we use the terms viral video or viral marketing campaign.  A virus doesn’t just spread quickly.  It also spreads indiscriminately.  That is, the person initiating the viral video or campaign doesn’t have any control over who the video or campaign is going to “infect.” 

Recently we’ve seen this with Heinz’s controversial Mayo ad.  The idea of a single-sex couple getting their household ready for the day plays well over in Britain, but boy did it cause a stink in the U.S. (where it was never meant to be seen).  Similarly, the Absolut vodka Mexican controversy (I blogged about that here) spread via the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle.

I also believe that both these advertisements are examples of “adpublitizing.”  Adpublitizing is my term for what happens when an ad becomes an issue and this issue can be written and opined about in the media.  The benefit is obvious.  A limited media buy is amplified by pundits who rant about or dissect the ad and then replay it endlessly so that they can make whatever point they want to make about it.  The result is millions of dollars worth of free promotional support for the brand in question —a potential windfall for a brand (and for the product manager who cooks up the particular adpublitizing tactic that hits gold).

So what does all of this mean?  Well, for one, Fiat quickly and effusively apologized for the ad.  But then they kept running it in the European market.  My guess is that this strategy might work for now, but soon people are going to get wise to this idea of playing one market’s sensibilities against another. 

In other words, I can see an offended party rejecting a brand in the long-term if they suspect the apology wasn’t genuine (and, fact is, making a whole commercial like the Gere commercial can’t honestly be classified as an oversight or a gaffe).  So smart brand management is critical –and being quickly responsive when a viral campaign gets out of hand is a must.

Still, I think the Fiat approach suggests a way forward for marketing and branding in this brave new world. 

Marketing is the new advertising –that is, a single media format just doesn’t work by itself anymore.  Today, even advertising has to be advertised.  To some extent global brands will probably have to be ready to court (and even engineer) controversy as they seek to build brand and product recognition around the globe.  The reality is that in a global market where borders are disappearing, not everyone will be pleased by the values and marketing of your brand –and that will be fine as long as the target market is pleased and the damage done isn’t terminal. 

So maybe Fiat can play it both ways now.  They should consider doing a clever Chinese ad that somehow puts their brand above the fray and still manages to generate controversy.  After all, they defended the Gere ad by saying that it wasn’t meant to be political but only to praise “The Power To Be Different!”  Maybe they can put a digitally re-animated Chairman Mao behind the steering wheel of a Fiat…

What’s certain is we’re going to see more of this type of thing.  Already there’s word that BMW is set to launch a viral video campaign in the U.S.   By the way, after being dropped by Dior, Sharon Stone was quickly picked up by Italian jewelry house Damiani. 

And, remember, it’s always easier if you keep branding and marketing in mind.


One form of advertising is not enough to build a brand anymore –no matter how good the ad.


What did you think of this article?

  • No trackbacks exist for this post.
  • No comments exist for this post.
Leave a comment

Submitted comments are subject to moderation before being displayed.

 Name (required)

 Email (will not be published) (required)


Your comment is 0 characters limited to 3000 characters.