Of Gimmick Marketing and #PRFails: A Cautionary Tale


I love wine. So recently when I learned about Miracle Machine, an at home wine-making kit that promised accelerated wine-making at home and the company’s soon-to-be Kickstarter campaign, I was intrigued. I immediately asked to be notified when the Kickstarter launched, along with 7,000 fellow wine lovers.

In just under two weeks, the Miracle Machine went viral as more than 200,000 people watched the video, nearly 600 international media outlets covered the story and more than 6,000 individuals tweeted about the accelerated wine-making product.

Great success, right? Not so much. It was all a gimmick, and the latest in the gimmick marketing trend, empowered by viral social media, and like many others, I had been duped.

This gimmick marketing strategy was for Wine to Water, a not-for-profit dedicated to providing people around the world with access to clean water. It was ultimately a PR failure. While this doesn’t quite compare to the fails of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force bomb scare or the “Hold your Wee for a Wii” radio contest, this approach backfired, damaging what had been an admirable cause and worthwhile nonprofit beyond repair.

When gimmick marketing campaigns like this are created, marketing and PR professionals need to be very careful about crossing the line. How far is too far? Based on reactions to the Wine to Water campaign they may have done more harm than good for their cause.

The big reveal and explanation of Wine to Water’s goals didn’t go over well with the newly engaged audience it had recently punk’d. Folks were so angry that eventually the comments sections were disabled on most social platforms. Negative backlash poured in from individuals who felt the stunt was deceiving. Hundreds vowed they wouldn’t donate to the nonprofit as a result of the joke. And while some appreciated the humor, the gimmick captured headlines, and the nonprofit Wine to Water’s brand was tarnished. Many felt that Wine to Water should have a powerful enough story on its own to attract the same attention without a gimmick.

You just don’t mess with wine-drinkers, I guess.

In lieu of the Miracle Machine, Wine to Water did provide the option for donors to buy wine in order to help the cause via the Wine to Water website. While it may have not fixed all the damage, it was smart to keep the connection to wine as a key component of the campaign to inform potential donors on the global water crisis and what the organization is doing to help solve it. Unfortunately though, not all wine lovers, who would have donated at the drop of a hat for an at home wine machine, feel as strongly about providing water and well support to third world countries, especially to an organization that pulled the wool over their eyes.

PR campaigns such as this, while well-intentioned, make targeted audience members question the authenticity of brands and organizations who rely on gimmick marketing to get attention. It’s best to tread carefully here because the damage you can inflict on your brand can last a life-time. Here are six questions to ask before giving into a gimmick marketing approach:

  1. What is the organization really about and what does it want an audience to understand?
  2. What is the realistic goal and expectations of the PR campaign you are trying to create?
  3. What is the organization’s purpose in attempting gimmick marketing?
  4. Will stakeholders be offended in any way?
  5. Will the campaign actually appeal to the brand’s target demographic?
  6. Is it worth it?

What do you think? Would you still donate if duped? Reach out to me @Sofia_Kathryn with your thoughts.

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