Mixing religion and humor is always risky. Throw in major brand names and what do you get? Instant controversy -- even if the brands took no part in the creative.
That has certainly proved the case with one of the consumer-generated entries for this year's Doritos/Pepsi MAX "Crash the Super Bowl" challenge -- a contest that will result in six winning videos being broadcast as ads for the PepsiCo/Frito-Lay brands during Super Bowl XLV. The creators of the winning videos will also have a shot at sharing a prize pool that could reach $5 million, depending on how the ads score on USA Today's Super Bowl Ad Meter.
The video entry that has caused the stir, "Feed the Flock," shows a "pastor" succeeding in bringing in new church parishioners by serving Doritos and Pepsi MAX from the altar -- a scenario that was interpreted by some Catholics as mocking the religion's sacrament of Holy Eucharist (formerly Holy Communion).
"Flock" was not chosen as one of the 10 finalists announced on Jan. 3 (the six winners will now be determined by consumer voting). And in a statement supplied today to Marketing Daily, PepsiCo has confirmed that "Flock" has now been removed from the gallery of the thousands of video entries posted on the contest's official site.
However, the creators of the video -- Philadelphia-based Media Wave Video Productions -- posted it on YouTube at the end of December. By Jan. 3, it had already generated more than 100,000 views through that channel, in addition to more than 20,000 views through the contest site, according to Media Wave, which fanned the viral flames with its own press release following PepsiCo's finalists' announcement.
On the same day that the finalists were announced, one Catholic organization, "America Needs Fatima," posted, on various Catholic forums, a call for signatures on petition urging PepsiCo not to "approve" the video entry, which the organization described as a "horrific blasphemy."
Also on Jan. 3, Frito-Lay spokesperson Chris Kuechenmeister posted a comment on the petition page on the Dallas/Ft. Worth MetroCatholic forum explaining that the video was consumer-generated, offering apologies to anyone who might have been offended, and explaining that "Flock" was not among the chosen finalists, and would not air during the Super Bowl or be part of any other Doritos/Pepsi MAX marketing efforts.
In addition, while it did not immediately remove the video from its contest entry gallery, PepsiCo sent a similar explanatory/apology message directly to those who had signed the petition or voiced objections to the company. That message also noted that PepsiCo's consumer relations department "will share your feedback with our marketing teams, so they can be aware of your concerns."
All of the official PepsiCo responses stress that "Flock" was one of more than 5,600 entries received. "With such a significant number of submissions, you get a pretty wide range of concepts," notes the statement supplied to Marketing Daily. "We apologize to anyone who was upset or offended by this consumer submission."
Media Wave's release following PepsiCo's finalists' announcement -- headlined "'Flock' Causes Flak" -- expressed disappointment that the video was not chosen as a finalist, and explained that it was not intended to offend anyone.
"In fact, we purposely filmed it in a non-denominational church with no tabernacle, used no vestments or other religious symbols, and populated the lines [to the altar] with people of all faiths," stated the video's director, Dave Williams. (One person in line was in Amish dress, for example.)
Williams said the producers "knew our submission had the potential to be controversial -- we just never expected it would become, arguably, the most talked-about spot in the contest." The Media Wave release also trumpets that the video's subject matter has "raised the ire of conservative Christian and Catholic bloggers across the country."
The controversy has no doubt been a visibility boon for Media Wave: YouTube views ultimately hit 131,000, although the video is now unviewable through that link (clicking produces a message stating that the video has been made "private"). Another site that briefly posted the video now carries a message that the video has been taken down due to a copyright claim by Media Wave.
A random scan of various Catholic blogs indeed turns up many posters stating that they were angered or offended by the video. At the same time, other posters noted that the video appears to be non-denominational rather than specific to Catholicism (sort of "an equal opportunity offender," in one blogger's words), or that they found it non-offensive or even funny. "What people are forgetting is that the commercial in question was submitted by someone not in the employ of Frito Lay," wrote one. "Unless they decide to go with that commercial, they are really not to blame for its existence."
Some bloggers on both Catholic and secular sites asserted that the "Flock" video should not have been approved as a valid entry or posted, given that the rules for the "Crash the Super Bowl" contest clearly state that entries may not contain "defamatory statements (including but not limited to words or symbols that are widely considered offensive to individuals of a certain race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic group)."
Of course, PepsiCo/Frito-Lay is far from alone in having been taken off guard by an unexpected result from a marketing effort employing crowdsourcing, points out Vince Cooper in Crowdsourcing.org, a blog devoted to this marketing technique.
Cooper lists a number of crowdsourcing efforts that have resulted in ill-fated, short-lived brand decisions and/or controversy, some of which arguably make the "Flock" episode pale by comparison. These include Coca-Cola's quickly aborted launch of "New Coke"; the New York Mets' attempt to pick an anthem by popular voting being hijacked by rabid fans of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" (the song was played once and rejected after game attendees booed it down); and NASA's embarrassment when public voting resulted in the choice of the name "Stephen Colbert" for the International Space Station (a name NASA declined to use).
Nor are crowdsourcing gaffes limited to commercial brands. The Obama administration failed to anticipate the potential consequences of opening a press conference up to questions from all comers, via the President's "Open for Questions" Web site. The site "was soon overtaken by enthusiasts for the legalization of marijuana -- their cause rising above that of jobs, energy reform and healthcare," Cooper observes.