World Cup 2014 panel

KLM angered millions of Mexicans to make a joke about the World Cup

No sooner had the Netherlands beaten Mexico with an equaliser two minutes before the end of the match and a last minute penalty, than KLM joined those who seek to capitalise on the drama of the World Cup with topical advertising: “Adios Amigos” they said to their Mexican opponents, underneath a sign for airport departures.

This was just the latest in a number of quick-thinking adverts which seek to link to topical events in the World Cup. While some can be highly profitable and add kudos to a company, others – such as the KLM tweet – can be detrimental. It’s a fine line for advertisers to tread, but a look at some of the recent ads inspired by the World Cup shows how they can capitalise on the mood of the moment without upsetting millions of fans.

The recent incident with Luis Suarez of Uruguay spawned a number of quick reactions from advertisers.

Marketers sought to capture the moment, from Snickers:

To Philips:

What though are the pros and cons of this type of topical marketing and the potential benefits and perils of its viral spread on social media?

Social media has grown as a means of marketing communication for businesses as well as individual users, with its real time, engaging and –- often – user-generated content. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter now command massive potential audiences. In 2013, Facebook had 1.23 billion active accounts, Twitter 255m (78% of whom are accessing via mobile devices), with newer platforms such as Vine (40m registered users), and Instagram (150m registered users).

Fresh and “in the moment” are important features of social media as a channel for advertisers. So, funny comment on incidents during the World Cup fits the bill perfectly for content, which is likely to be spread rapidly between users.

What, though, are the benefits and potential pitfalls of this type of advertising?

One of the obvious benefits is the relative low cost of the internet and social media as a channel to market compared with the cost of advertising on television or even in print. A second is speed or immediacy. When used effectively, it is possible to get these advertising responses out within minutes of a match finishing or an incident occurring. A third is that football and the World Cup is emotionally engaging, and that this type of advert is likely to gain attention and be passed from user to user.

But there are potential pitfalls of this form of topical, social media advertising. First, these adverts often use humour. While the World Cup has a massive potential audience, humour is often culturally specific and – along with topical adverts – is not always a form of advertising which is well suited to global audiences.

Put simply, these messages may simply not be misunderstood because of cultural differences. Similarly, topical advertising only works with those who are aware of the event to which it refers.

Second, and more worryingly, both topical and humorous ads run the risk of offending at least part of the potential audience. So an advert which pokes fun at the Suarez incident might entertain some audiences, but might offend Uruguayan fans and customers of those products.

It may also miss the mark. What is funny to one person may not be to the next. The KLM advert met with mixed responses: was this funny, or was it just poor sportsmanship and offensive? Opinion was divided. The ad appears to have been taken down by KLM, but is still circulating, perhaps all the more for this.

So, these approaches are relatively low cost and potentially engage audiences and provoke reactions, whether positive or negative. They may provide a clever means of seizing the moment. But they may provoke negative responses in at least part of the global market, and the speed with which they circulate means that if they don’t go down well, they are very hard to recall and stop from further spread.