The verdict in the court of public opinion appears to be a resounding YES. And while we may feel otherwise, we hear you, and that’s what this post is about.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Save the’Bou campaign: yesterday we launched, on behalf of four environmental groups (and in a pro bono capacity) an initiative to raise awareness about legislation passed by the Provincial Government but not enacted. Legislation that would protect important parts of Ontario’s Great Boreal forest (one of the largest intact forests on the planet) and home to the woodland caribou, which also happens to be the animal on the Canadian quarter. Without this important protection, the woodland caribou is in very real danger of vanishing forever. Best guesses give it no more than a handful of years without habitat protection.

This is an issue that the groups running this campaign (The David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace, Forest Ethics and Canopy) have been trying to raise public awareness around for years with limited success. In part because there are a million “Save the XXX” campaigns and therefore we all ignore most of them.

Enter our approach. Let me first off state that we carefully weighed the risks/benefits, deciding that it would be worth it for SMG to expend some valuable social capital on behalf of such an important cause. We deliberately crafted an edgy, provocative campaign that we hoped would get people talking and thinking about exactly what they care about and what spurs them to action (since, clearly, “Save the XXX” campaigns with very limited budget have trouble cutting through the noise). We set up a Facebook page and Twitter account that stated that the woodland caribou was in danger of being removed from the Canadian quarter. Then members of our team tweeted and re-tweeted, urging people to our Facebook page where the messages were repeated with additional information about the animals endangered status.

Within three hours, once we had a reasonable amount of attention, we switched our platforms to reveal our core message: that it’s not the caribou on the quarter that could disappear, but the animal itself (we should also point out that we fully disclosed the nature of the campaign to each and every person that questioned it directly). At that time (and only then) we also made available links to the online petition and to the groups supporting the campaign. Finally, we asked people to think – if we had simply launched a “Save the XXX” campaign, would anyone have noticed? Would there have been any conversation at all? Why is it a symbol on a coin garners so much attention – from both media and the public – when the fact that the animal itself is in danger of extinction has caused barely a ripple for years?

Thing was, you didn’t like that we told you something that wasn’t true. We got a lot of flak on the backchannel for the approach, and some pretty negative comments on our blog post revealing the campaign. Admittedly this was from a small number of people, but I think for me the deafening silence from almost everyone else in our networks made the biggest impression.

So I’d like to apologize. I’m sorry if you feel we abused your trust and crossed what seems to be a pretty deep line in the social media sand. While this format of campaign is not uncommon in mass marketing, it clearly is not something that is currently acceptable (no matter how supportive of a good cause or not-for-profit) on the social web.

Finally, rather than leaving the post mortem to a vocal few, we’d like to hear YOUR thoughts on this. Tell us what you think we did right/wrong and whether or not the reaction to this campaign is purist dogma or reality knocking. We’d love to hear your feedback. However, before you go, here is a video of our coverage on this issue you may find very interesting. I strongly encourage you to watch it now.

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20 Comments

  1. Kudos on this post. And rest assured, I was well and truly rickrolled.

    It’s good to toe the line once in awhile and it was a brave decision to launch this campaign and discuss it so openly in so many channels. We disagree on the tactics but it’s certainly something we can all learn from as we figure out the limits and best uses of social tools.

  2. Well played Maggie… the video at the end was awesome. ;)

  3. Been interesting to watch (snippets) of this unfold. It’s interesting (and heartening) that honesty and credibility have been revealed to be so important.

    Just occurred to me that the Caribou is getting endangered on the quarter given all the special versions that the mint is producing! So the headline “Woodland Caribou disappearing from Quarter” could be true.

    It’ll be interesting to see where you go next with this worthwhile campaign.

    cheers, Andrew

  4. Seriously! That clip! *shakes head* :P I thought I was being sincerely invited to support a group and a legitimate cause and the morning after was asked to share this with my network. For it to be revealed that this was not only a client project but that I was also brought in/asked to share a false story my trust dropped significantly and I felt used. I went from being semi supportive to being slightly angry about it.

    I think people do sincerely want to support causes as I’ve seen with Hohoto, SpinTO, and War Child but thats when they are asked to support in a a sincere and actionable manner. But when they are being lied to and asked to share fake news with their network for what it seems just to build numbers people feel burned. I know in the past there have been amber alerts and messages going around of a death or other bad event and after finding out it was fake it left a bad feeling with those who shared it.

    I’m able to accept your apology as just a misguided experiment, but my trust still needs to be built up again. If I come across a campaign that seems even slightly non legit I’m going to take a pass on it.

  5. Deceptive or not, what you have proven is something everyone has known (but has refused to admit) for a long time. People pay most attention to things that shock them. Deceptive headlines are used every day to get us to pay attention to issues. Like this case, the issue is obviously critical but until you did this, nobody cared. Is what you’ve “done” your bad, or ours as consumers?

  6. The fact that you’re characterizing the people who called out your campaign for what it was “moral purists” and a “vocal few” makes it fairly evident that you have missed their point entirely. I also note your rather carefully chosen wording – “I’m sorry if you feel we abused your trust” – apologizes not for what you did but for the possibility that it made people feel upset.

    That’s a cop-out. The line you crossed has nothing to do with the nature of social media. In your own words, “we told you something that wasn’t true.” You deliberately led people to believe something that was not true in order to attract attention and further a different goal.

    That’s a line you’re not supposed to cross in any field.

    The worst part of it all is that you didn’t have to do it that way. You guys actually have a point – it is incredible that people will get more outraged over the loss of an animal on the coin than they will over the animal itself. You could have crafted a campaign around that. You could have used images of the quarter and said that in the future, this may be the only caribou left. You could have played off people’s natural affinity for the symbol in order to make your point without saying, again in your words, “something that wasn’t true.”

    But you chose – after, I note, you “carefully weighed the risks/benefits” – not to do that.

    I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt when I read your post, but the Rickroll at the end destroyed your credibility with me. I find it farcical that you have attempted to conflate an internet meme based on deception for the purposes of entertainment with the fact that you told people, in your own words, “something that wasn’t true” as part of a professional, albeit pro bono, campaign.

    I sincerely hope that you have better luck with this sort of thing in the future. Lessons learned.

  7. maggiefox Author

    @Joe thanks, and that for spurring a great debate.

    @Kevin again, we’re sorry.

    @Dan thanks for your comments, and as I said, we’re sorry. And as far as the rickroll goes – it’s a joke. Laugh a little.

  8. ottawasteph

    I hope that you will apologize and make amends to the Royal Canadian Mint, which was put in the position of damage control for this public relations nightmare. Another thing that has happened is the telephone game of repeating your lie to friends, family and co-workers. The ways don’t justify the means. For a campaign to be successful, you must avail yourselves of the voluntary service of professionals, rather than concoct hoaxes by committee.

  9. Kate N

    I think it was great, actually. When it broke that it wasn’t really going to vanish from the quarter it made me think why I was so willing to do something about changing the quarter but not necessarily do anything about actual animals disapearing. A quick google news search and a visit to the website of the royal canadian mint failed to show any evidence of them even knowing this was going on, for anyone who cared to look into the issue a little deeper. A great attention getter.

  10. maggiefox Author

    @Kate – thanks, our goal exactly.

    Had an interesting conversation yesterday with the folks from War Child who ran this very successful campaign last year, While the cause is very different, the approach was similar. Interesting to note that the reaction, however, was very different.

  11. Robert Johnston

    People. You all need to relax. An endangered species is going extinct because logging companies are liquidating their habitat to make newsprint, copy paper and 2 by 4s. Consumers of these products all over North America need to pay attention and get informed AND then get engaged by lobbying governments and companies to protect woodland caribou. How about stepping away from your computers and doing some real world activism.

    Name a company anywhere who does not use the media to promote their product and does so often in less than truthful ways. Does it work – YES.

    In this case SMG and environmental organizations like Greenpeace and ForestEthics have used some trickery to tell you all a very important thing. It got your attention and broke through the racket of companies trying to sell you destructive and useless products. Sounds like it worked. So Kudos to SMG and the greenies for doing something smart and fun.

  12. F Patterson

    I don’t really get what all the fuss is about! Using edgy tactics is the only thing that has ever gotten campaigns like this anywhere. An abuse of trust?? This was a clever ruse, like many that have been played for campaigns in the past, to focus attention on something critically important that will otherwise just continue to be ignored. Go SMG, and I hope to see more of this clever style of getting an urgent message out.

  13. Sunil Pansi

    You guys tapped into something fundamental about human nature – sometimes we care more about tangible symbols of our identity – the ‘bou on the quarter – and feel apathetic about abstract problems conveyed to us via statistics. Good play, SMG. I don’t understand the fuss.

  14. A very interesting story and campaign. Not 4 weeks ago my company, VisitDenmark, found itself in a similar predicament, when our viral video on YouTube (Danish Mother Seeking) caused moral outrage (primarily in Denmark). We had the best intentions but the way the campaign was executed was flawed and we had to pull it.

    I have a question for you Maggie: why does the link for your campaign site refer me to the opening page on Facebook? I can’t find the campaign site nor the FB group? Has all of it been removed from the web?

    Sincerely,
    Jesper

    P.S. I like the general idea behind your campaign very much, but I also understand why social media users are upset that they have given false info to their own network. The debate that followed is healthy and interesting however! :-)

  15. maggiefox Author

    @Jesper thanks for your perspective! The site is still up, and the campaign (now post-kickoff) is picking up speed. If you’re not signed up for Facebook or logged it, you will be directed to the FB home page when you type in http://www.savethebou.ca

  16. I was among those who were just plain confused. My initial reaction was “I don’t feel strongly one way or another about our currency” so I just plain ignored the campaign from the start. I didn’t realize that the message had changed because the words “Save the ‘Boo” were still present within the next barrage of invites/messages I saw for the campaign.

  17. @mjmclean

    Interesting case study for communications practitioners to be sure – just when we need them for social media integration.

    I have to say – I agree with the likes of F. Patterson and Sanil Pansi. Being provocative, challenging the norm and garnering attention are old strategies that translate very well into this new media. Was it dishonest? No. It was a clever campaign that leveraged a play on words to communicate the truth as it stood with regard to the caribou.

    Did you need to apologize? Not in my book and, unlike some other comments, I’m glad you only apologized for any possible offense and not for the campaign. Open and responsive in an appropriate manner.

    Well done SMG.

    @mjmclean

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