The Sport of PR: Tackling the Commercial Impact (Caution: Story Contains Description of Harmed Doll)

By now you’ve seen many of commercials that ran during the Super Bowl and tracked the controversies stemming from a few of them.  While I followed with interest Groupon‘s decision to promote its daily deals by showcasing great food to be had (at a discount) at a Tibetan restaurant (with a side dish of  Tibet’s human rights challenges), I found the controversy surrounding HomeAway a bit more intriguing from a communications standpoint. Since dropping $3 mil on a commercial featuring a frazzled family squeezed into hotel room and resulting in a “test baby doll” being accidentally flung across the room and smashed against a window, the vacation-rental company was hit with accusations of insensitivity to the abuse of children nationwide, perhaps worlwide. I have two words for this: Come On! It is clear that the baby doll was not real, but the image of its smushed face kissing the window was enough to get the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation and other children advocacy groups demanding an apology. HomeAway’s CEO Brian Sharples did just that, and it is three pages long (for those who still print these statements). He said the company “made a mistake in judgment” and that the image of the “test baby doll is too hurtful for us not to take action.”

So millions of us will be relieved to know that it is re-shooting the ad so that the doll is being “safely caught and unharmed”. Since the “money shot” of the commercial is the image of a treasured doll gone awry in a non-vacation -home setting, HomeAway is sticking to the concept, albeit revised.  Let’s assume that the baby being thrown in the air is good enough for the advocacy groups to not cry foul. What is also interesting from a PR standpoint is the extra attention HomeAway is getting (check it out: there are more than 230,000 rentals worldwide to choose from! Oh, and it’s filing an IPO soon). The company is getting kudos for its quick and contrite response, and advocacy groups are capitalizing on the opportunity to spread their message. It’s a touchdown for all involved.  And there’s still an opportunity for HomeAway’s engaged audience to put their face on the baby in the commercial: On its site, it notes: “Now that you’ve seen the #testbaby ad, it’s time to star in it yourself. Put your face in the baby.”  Unfortunately you have to wait until the new version of the commercial is available and you won’t get to see the likeness of your face smushed, mangled and stuck to a window. Oh well.

– Diane Schwartz