Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Did Durex screw its own brand?

Handing your Twitter account over to a complete doos is the PR equivalent of giving a loaded gun to a drooling moron. Jen Thorpe has written about the Durex Twitter cock-up from a feminist stance. Inevitably, there are those who can’t see anything wrong with what Durex did. But from a brand point of view, it was very, very stupid. (Oh, the potential for puns.)

I first noticed the debacle when people I was following — many of them in the media — started speculating about whether the DurexSA account had been hacked. A sample of DurexSA tweets from yesterday:

“WHO in their right mind would make #RawSex trend? Are you guys serious? Have you no respect for yourself or your partner? #WrapItUp !!!!!!”

Which makes perfect sense. But then suddenly the account starts tweeting jokes like the following:

“What does a good bar and a good woman have in common? Liquor in the front and poker from the back! #DurexJoke”

“Why did God give men penises? So they’d have at least one way to shut a woman up. #DurexJoke”

“What do the Mafia and a vagina have in common? One slip of the tongue, and you’re in deep shit #DurexJoke”

In response to criticism, DurexSA tweeted:

“have u seen the posts on the trend… Everyone saying that they love it! It’s an eye opener how ignorant those peope r!” and “opinion pls but our followers who we engage with regularly loves it (target audience) & the those who dont, comlain”

Spellcheck clearly just a suggestion then. Followers were not impressed. Women24’s Lili Radloff tweeted:

“I love how so many of the men in my timeline are disgusted by @DurexSA. And I love how so many of them are in media. Once again PR DISASTER”

DurexSA clearly harbours ambitions to be the Nonhle Thema of brands on Twitter. Not only was the account tweeting sexist jokes of the kind found in the remainder bin at the CNA, it was also barely literate. In fact, the tweeter looked like he — it must have been a he — could well have been drunk until the tweets suddenly improved in standard — presumably someone more senior and slightly less shitfaced intervened. “We’re really sorry for causing offence today, not intentional. We believe in the rights of woman and safe sex. Thanks for putting us right.”

Um, ja, that makes it all OK I guess. Limp, as somebody described that response. Naturally, there were those who didn’t see anything wrong with what Durex did. The cartoonist Jeremy Nell, who also came out in defence of the Markham T-shirts, tweeting, “But it’s too easy (and fun) to bait angry feminists.” (Women24’s Sam Wilson tweeted in response: “Think feminist-baiting is too easy? Then switch back to racism, you stupid motherfucker.”)

It was fascinating to watch. Durex became a trending topic and the account attracted lots of new followers. Was it all a ploy to generate inches of the column sort? It’s said that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but was it worth it? Has Durex damaged its brand in South Africa through intemperate tweeting on the eve of a campaign focusing on the abuse of women and children? Durex has always pushed the boundaries in its communication, something you’d expect from a brand that is quite literally all about sex. But cheeky as Durex has always been, there’s always been a cleverness about it. There was nothing clever about those tweets.

Which brings me to my next point: in marketing as in life, who says something matters much as what is said, a point I make in my column for the next issue of Strategic Marketing magazine. There I looked at the issue of the offensive Markham T-shirts. Nobody is saying that T-shirts with stupid sexist slogans should be banned. But they should not be endorsed by a big, mainstream brand.

And there’s nothing more mainstream than Durex. You can get Clicks Clubcard points for buying Durex branded lube! So behaving like 16-year-old boy who found his dad’s bottle of Johnny Walker Blue at the back of the drinks cabinet doesn’t really fit, somehow. The impact of stupid tweeting (something I wrote about in last weekend’s City Press i mag) could be seriously career-limiting. Whoever put out those tweets should be fired. At least DurexSA hasn’t made a mistake that lots of brands who step into the dwang on social media do, which is delete the offending remarks or otherwise try to cover it up.

All this tweeting in anger won’t have much impact on the public at large. But Twitter’s South Africa media community is relatively small and highly connected. So Durex has managed to alienate the influencers on whom it relies to help communicate its brand messages to their audiences — especially the lifestyle journalists who write about love, sex and relationships. For a brand that has always positioned itself as fun and sexy, but responsible, getting pegged as a brand that’s unapologetically crass is not good — no matter which way you look at it.

Way to go, Durex. As Chris Roper, editor of the Mail & Guardian Online tweeted:

“Practice Safe Tweeting! If you’re going to fuck your brand, use DurexSA.”

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