The Worst PR Campaign Ever

Public service campaigns have long used friendly or cute characters to inform the public about serious issues and these campaigns can hang around for decades. McGruff The Crime Dog™ has been taking a bite out of crime since 1979, we learned a lot about seat belts from the Crash Test Dummies from 1985 to 1999 and Smokey the Bear first advised us that only we could prevent forest fires way back in 1944.

When they work, branded characters can drive a message like no other because they can reach people via advertising, public relations, word of mouth, personal appearances and social media and the Internet. This ability for a campaign to become multi-disciplinary can achieve staggering results.

When they work, branded characters can drive a message like no other because they can reach people via advertising, public relations, word of mouth, personal appearances and social media and the Internet.

According to the Ad Council, when the Crash Test Dummies campaign spurred a rise in seatbelt usage from 17% to 79% of Americans were regularly buckling up. Smokey the Bear has cut the annual loss by forest fire from 22 to 4 million acres. McGruff and his Take a Bite Out of Crime™ campaign is recognized by 93% of children and half of all adults in the U.S.

But attempts at creating an iconic public safety campaign can misfire badly. Norfolk Southern Corp., an iconic company in its own right, has been promoting what is perhaps the worst public safety or service campaign ever created — and they’ve been doing it since 2007.

Meet Brainy, a giant blob of a brain cartoon character on skinny black legs with an expression like he’s suffering from a world class hangover. The theme is worthy, safety at railroad crossings, but it’s hard to see how the campaign will influence behavior with Brainy using a tag line like “train your brain” (railroad crossings, get it?). Are kids really going to pay attention to the absurdity of a giant brain telling them to “Be Smart At Railroad Crossings”.

Meet Brainy, a giant blob of a brain cartoon character on skinny black legs with an expression like he’s suffering from a world class hangover.

The campaign is primarily PR based, looking to gather attention in the media along with personal appearances by Brainy at county fairs and similar events Brainy seems to be particularly fond of Notre Dame football and tailgated at eight home games last year.

But May 25, 2011 brought about an attempt at a PR stunt that leaves one gasping at the juvenile absurdity of the idea: Brainy will be attending the 5th Annual Memphis Zombie Walk.

The Zombie Walk is a quirky event that looks like fun: people get dressed up as Zombies then march through downtown Memphis, lurching towards other participants marked with a duct-tape X and “devouring” their brains. After all, human brains are like chocolate chip cookies to a zombie, they just can’t get enough.

Of course, it is the combination of brains and zombies that makes the appearance of Norfolk Southern’s “giant pink ambulating public safety ambassador” so bizarre. For a character-based PR campaign to be successful, the character needs to have some combination of the CHASE attributes: Cute, Humorous, Authoritative, Sympathetic, or Emotional. Smoky is both cute and authoritative, the Crash Test Dummies are humorous and sympathetic and McGruff is authoritative and slightly cute. Brainy is just plain creepy and doubly so when in the company of zombies.

For a character-based PR campaign to be successful, the character needs to have some combination of the CHASE attributes: Cute, Humorous, Authoritative, Sympathetic, or Emotional.

This campaign is so bad on so many levels that it make one pause in wonderment that it could actually get launched by a corporation with almost $10 billion in annual revenues. One would think that an issue as serious as safety at railroad crossings, and it is serious, would call for a communications effort that actually stood a chance of communicating something other than absurdity.

Finally, lest I be accused of not having a sense of humor over a giant brain attending a ZombieFest, I freely admit that it is funny and entertaining. However, I am under no illusion that it the Brainy campaign does anything other than serve as the exemplar of poorly conceived and badly executed PR.

– By: David Fuscus – President & CEO |

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