Stoner Sloth: PR Failure, or Social Media Success?


Every ad agency dreams about creating a spot that goes viral, right? Well, maybe not quite like this. Saatchi & Saatchi, headquartered in New York City, is in the news this week defending a series of anti-marijuana PSAs they created for the government of New South Wales, Australia, to the tune of 500,000 taxpayer dollars: the infamous "Stoner Sloth" campaign.

Many criticisms have been leveled at the ads per se, such as:

  • Comparing marijuana users to an animal that is generally seen as cute, harmless and lovable doesn't seem like an effective tactic.
  • The sloth exhibits similar behaviors to somebody with depression or social anxiety, and the ads imply that mocking somebody who acts that way is acceptable.
  • One of the ads takes place at a party where high schoolers are drinking from red plastic cups (common visual shorthand for alcohol) with no ill effects or consequences, seemingly making a statement that alcohol is a preferable form of recreation for teenagers.

Instrinsic factors aside, the main sticking point is how the ads have been received by their target audience of teenagers: not with sober self-examination, but with mirthful derision. The #stonersloth hashtag feed, presumably started in hopes of developing a conversation about the pitfalls of cannabis use, is packed to the gills with ridicule.

Yes, it appears Stoner Sloth is yet another cautionary tombstone in the cemetery of cringe-inducing ads that tried to communicate a serious subject to teens in a "hip" way, in the grand tradition of Don't Copy That Floppy. And yet there is that viral component. A few short TV spots that aired in the southeastern corner of Australia are being viewed and talked about worldwide. As with Miss Universe after its recent gaffe, the share of voice (if we're being positive/negative agnostic) is off the charts. Saatchi & Saatchi claims that the outpouring of social media engagement is "significant return on investment and involvement."

So did they succeed, or not?

This goes back to an important element of best practices: setting goals and objectives. The agency may be claiming ex post facto that it was their aim all along to get people to use their hashtag by any means necessary, which would of course be disingenuous. But if, like responsible communications professionals, they did indeed sit down with the client before they created the campaign and set a specific objective of getting X engagement on Twitter by Y date, they may very well have been successful by that metric. We can't know if that's what happened, but it does serve as an important reminder that we should always be conscious of our objectives and on the same page as our clients.

Follow Ian James Wright: @ianwright0101