Prince Tributes and Online Advertising


As part of Google’s Squared Online community I’ve had some fantastic conversations with people all over the world about what constitutes good and bad digital marketing. A conversation I was involved in this week was started by an article on the Guardian’s website about a slimming pill ad that got over 200 complaints. It got me thinking about some online ‘ads’, or ‘Prince Tributes’ as the people in question would rather they were called, that I’ve seen over the past few weeks.

Prince Tributes Stop The Traffic

Being a big fan of his music I’ve naturally been looking at all the Prince tributes that have been paid to him from fellow musicians and fans across the world. Those tributes have cropped up on social media, in interviews, in performances and even spontaneous street parties; Spike Lee stopped traffic outside his Brooklyn home when thousands of people gathered there to listen to a DJ play Prince tracks through the night.

Prince Tributes - Spike Lee

And some of those tributes have also come from well know brands and businesses. Some have got it right, or as right as can be when a brand is seemingly tapping into the mood surrounding the death of a well respected and loved celebrity, and some have got it horribly wrong. For me, the Cheerios ‘tribute’ is a classic example of a brand getting it horribly wrong*.

The sky was all purple, there were people runnin’ everywhere

Throughout the last two weeks there have been many instances where a brand has changed the colour of its logo or typeface to the colour purple as a way of showing that they think Prince’s death is a big deal. He’s always been synonymous with the colour purple, writing a song called Purple Rain was only a part of that, so when Rolling Stone coloured the logo on their website purple, it wasn’t just a subtle way to honour the man, it was cool!

TheNewYorker_PrinceTributeCover16Other brands followed suit, MTV, 3M, TV Guide, The New Yorker and Google all turned purple without making a fanfare or doing it in a crass or opportunistic way…and then Cheerios had a go.

Rather than colour the Cheerios logo purple, and follow the path that other Prince Tributes had taken, they chose to display the words ‘Rest in Peace’, in white text against a purple background, a Cheerio replacing the dot above the letter ‘i’. The reaction from fans, media outlets and the advertising world was swift and unanimous; not cool Cheerios!

Complaints varied from criticising the ad for being more self promotion than tribute, to questioning what the h*ll a kids cereal has to do with the most talented musician and performer of the 20th century? The overall consensus was that Cheerios got it wrong. They weren’t the only ones though. In my mind Getty Images went one step further than Cheerios in trying to sell more product by posting an image of Prince on its Twitter feed with a link to buy the image and many more…what Price a dead rock star? Well £485 since you’re asking, that’s a large hi-res version, a small version will set you back £150.

I guess I should have known…

If I had been in that Cheerios meeting where the idea of paying tribute to Prince was being discussed I’d have perhaps said a few things that clearly weren’t said:

  1. This isn’t about us.
  2. This is not about revenue, it’s about respect.
  3. What are Prince fans saying and sharing?

At the end of the day Cheerios should probably have just gone purple with everyone else and shared their favourite Prince track with a link to YouTube.

Baby, have you got enough gas?

The brand that absolutely nailed it when it came to paying tribute to Prince was Chevrolet. Any Prince fan, or indeed any music fan, will tell you that Prince wrote a song in 1982 called Little Red Corvette. A Corvette being a car manufactured by Chevrolet. So when Chevrolet posted a picture of a Corvette on their Twitter feed and followed it up with full page ads in national US newspapers, only the the most cynical observer would have failed to see the charm, dignity and respect in the simple image and six words.

  1. The ad doesn’t mention Chevrolet, it’s not about them.
  2. You won’t be able to buy the Corvette in the picture from your local dealer, it’s a ’63 Chevy. It’s not about revenue.
  3. There’s a line in Little Red Corvette, Baby you’re much too fast. In the ad the only words are Baby, that was much too fast. By referencing the lyric Chevrolet were sharing Prince content, the same as millions of fans across the world at that moment. They made a connection.

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Chevrolette weren’t without their critics but most people agreed, it was a nice acknowledgement to a pop icon, even if you didn’t like it, it made you smile.

I’m not about to boycott Cheerios, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten them before anyway, but I would advise them to look at some of the better examples of tributes that have been created in recent days, and next time they need to attend a funeral service…you can’t go wrong with a plain black tie.

*The discussion on Squared Online was about ads that have caused controversy or breached advertising standards and guidelines.



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Mick Scanlon

Director at Sky Blue Toffee
As George Bernard Shaw put it, 'The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.' There's the challenge! 10 years marketing experience and looking forward to the next 10...
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