Today in Tedium: There’s an ad campaign currently on national TV that really bothers me. Like, a lot. Starting a couple of months ago, Facebook started using The Muppets to promote its Portal product, a device that is seen as so problematic that upon its release it received nearly universal do-not-buy recommendations from tech reviewers. And I friggin’ love The Muppets, to the point that I was absolutely giddy about them as a kid. But despite The Muppets’ roots in advertising, it feels wrong—like having Mister Rogers promoting Exxon after an oil spill. Today’s Tedium is about advertisers who put a happy face on problematic products. — Ernie @ Tedium
“It all ends in one of two ways: either someone gets eaten or something blows up.”
— Jim Henson, describing the controlled chaos of The Muppets, his concept for bringing puppetry to television starting in the 1950s. For the most part, Henson didn’t particularly care how the explosion or digestion took place, just that it happened, which is good, because it meant that he was flexible with how the brand first appeared.
Why Facebook’s co-opting of The Muppets to sell webcams is so problematic
The Muppets are a major influence on me, I think I can say. So much so that my third issue, published when I maybe had about 500 subscribers, was about them. And when I got a chance to check out a museum exhibit featuring Henson earlier this year, it brought me a level of joy few other things have.
But as much as I loved The Muppets when they Took Manhattan, I find myself really challenged by their current sponsorship deal with Facebook Portal.
The campaign is, on a surface level, well-done. Evoking the classic films, where the various characters are often split apart before coming together at the end of the film, the Portal is shown as a way to bring the characters into the same room once again, or as Kermit puts it: “I sent everyone a Portal so we can be together no matter where we are!”
In one sense, you can argue that this is an example of Jim Henson’s creation returning to its original context. Henson was never overly protective of The Muppets when it came to advertising, in part because it was initially one of the few contexts in which it could live peacefully before it became a successful concept on its own. He got his start in advertising, and one of his key goals was simply to get his foam and fabric figures out there. It took multiple tries and many false starts (most infamously, a hated stint on the first season of Saturday Night Live) to get his creations in the right context.
And the right context happened in a roundabout, indirect way. The Muppet Show, when first created in 1976, was a British production that aired in first-run syndication in the U.S. because the networks didn’t want it. But it became a phenomenon despite them, as well as a valuable asset, one that successfully hits pretty much every age group.
Decades later, it’s clear why The Muppets were picked for Facebook’s campaign, though: The franchise was on a bit of a downswing after the failure of a single-season sitcom on ABC a few years back that messed with the classic formula by attempting to modernize it and target it toward a more adult audience. That meant that Kermit and company were in need for a round of image rehab—something that put them in their original context.
You can say that the Portal ads certainly do that—despite the use of technology, the ads hit all of the cues of the 1970s variety show and the original film series.
The problem is that the device that they’re using is widely seen as a privacy nightmare, despite Facebook’s best efforts to sell it as anything but. Its reputation was so damaged out of the gate that it needs image rehab even more so than The Muppets do. On paper, it’s a combination that should make sense.
But there’s just one problem: Facebook Portal is an irredeemable product. It will not win because it is associated with Facebook, a company whose crises are myriad to the point it makes it untrustworthy. In fact, the Portal makes those image problems worse.
“They have privacy issues they need to address and having a device that could invade your home is a problem,” noted well-known tech journalist Kara Swisher upon Portal’s release.
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The Muppets’ Facebook gig feels like the Silicon Valley version of greenwashing
Making Fozzie Bear and Animal do brand rehab just feels like an enormous slap in the face—a clear example of something with a good reputation trying to sell something really bad.
It’s Facebook’s version of “greenwashing,” the well-known phenomenon in which companies with inherent environmental problems use eco-friendly language to promote their products or improve their track records.
It’s not a new idea (the concept really kicked off in earnest while Mark Zuckerberg was still in grade school), but there is a pretty recent example that’s worth bringing up. Earlier this year, the energy company Shell launched a YouTube series that leaned on the backs of a sitcom star and a number of high-profile online personalities.
The series, called “The Great Travel Hack,” shares a similar conceit to the Facebook Portal commercials, in that it uses positive imagery to help put a shine on something with a somewhat dark underbelly. The host, Kaley Cuoco of The Big Bang Theory, officiated a competition in which two teams of fresh-faced influencers (on one team, YouTube power couple Sara Dietschy and John Hill; on the other, popular travel vloggers Damon and Jo) traveled across the country using the minimum level of carbon dioxide possible.
It’s understandable why they did the series: Shell probably paid everyone a lot of money. But for those familiar with the nature of greenwashing, it felt like bad news.
“Shell making a promo on reducing CO2 emissions is like McDonald’s making a promo about reducing obesity,” one YouTube commenter stated.
Despite the negative comments and online criticism, that hasn’t stopped Shell, which made a second season targeting the European market.
Disney, which owns the Muppets brand, has allowed Facebook to commit the technology equivalent of greenwashing with some of the 20th century’s most beloved television icons. And if not careful, the company could cause long-term damage to an important brand.
The year that Disney finally purchased the Muppets franchise, a successful attempt that came about 15 years after the first time the company tried to do so in 1989. The deal fell through at the time in part due to Henson’s untimely death, but Disney in 1991 took a distribution role with The Jim Henson Company, and after that company was purchased back from a German media company in the early 2000s, the characters featured in The Muppet Show were sold to Disney in 2004—while Henson’s namesake company and some of its other franchises (Labyrinth, Fraggle Rock) continue to be owned by the independent studio, and Sesame Street has completely different owners entirely. (Which means, despite some surface similarities, the Facebook campaign has no corporate ties to Sesame Street’s promotion of Farmers Insurance.) Got all that?
Can brands damage celebrities as much as celebrities damage brands? Yes, sometimes
In some ways, the use of The Muppets in a Facebook commercial flips the script on the nature of celebrity endorsements gone awry. Generally, it’s the celebrity that’s costing the bigger brand credibility when something goes wrong.
One particularly famous example of this: Before O.J. Simpson became the poster child of low-speed car chases, he was the poster child of car rentals, as he endorsed Hertz. There were signs of trouble as early as 1989, as some of Simpson’s personal troubles went public, but the brand waited them out.
“There was still some concern and we watched it carefully … but after the press didn’t make a big deal about it, and the slap-on-the-hand outcome … we elected to keep going with O.J,” said Brian Kennedy, a Hertz executive vice president of marketing and sales, in a 1994 Washington Post article. (An article, incidentally, also written by Kara Swisher!)
Because O.J. spent so long as their sponsor, it was hard to disconnect Hertz’s image from the guy who was running away from the police in a Ford Bronco.
When a brand has a breakdown, the celebrity is more often than not the one who causes the breakdown. Think Lance Armstrong, Chris Brown, or Madonna—three celebrities who, for different reasons, saw major brand endorsement deals go south because of things they did.
But there are some examples where a brand association actually harms the celebrity. I have two in particular I want to bring light to: One that happened many decades ago, and another that’s much more recent.
The more recent example that comes to mind is Theranos, the failed startup that misled its investors regarding what its technology could actually do. So where do the celebrity endorsements come in? On its board—where major politicians, including former presidential cabinet members Henry Kissinger, James Mattis, and George Schultz, lent some of their authority to a high-flying startup. When information about Theranos’ processes came under scrutiny thanks to dogged reporters, the board was quickly torn apart.
The older example is more interesting, though. TV host Kathie Lee Gifford found her name dragged through the mud in the mid-1990s because of something she didn’t actually personally do, but was merely associated with indirectly.
The brand that did her wrong? Walmart, which sold a line of clothing with the talk show host’s name on the packaging. Charles Kernaghan, a labor activist whose organization, the National Labor Committee in Support of Human and Worker Rights (now known as the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights), was a leading voice against the use of sweatshops, publicly spoke out against Gifford, personally blaming her for the labor practices associated with the products that bore her name.
Kernaghan’s attack proved incredibly effective, so much that it caused years of problems for Gifford. As a New York Times piece put the saga:
Overnight, the effervescent co-host of “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee,” was branded a pariah after Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee Education Fund in Support of Worker and Human Rights in Central America, told Congress on April 29 that her clothing line was being made by 13- and 14-year-olds working 20-hour days in factories in Honduras.
Never mind that Wal-Mart was responsible for producing the Kathie Lee Gifford clothing line. Never mind that Michael Jordan and Jaclyn Smith have come under criticism for endorsing products made in sweatshops. Never mind that Mr. Kernaghan recently apologized, saying he and his organization “never intended to hurt anyone personally and are truly sorry for any pain caused to Kathie Lee Gifford.” The fact remains that the Kathie Lee name has become associated in the popular mind with the word “sweatshop.”
Gifford had never dealt with a controversy anywhere near this level in her career. Her whole brand was built on being innocuous and friendly. But Walmart was only just starting to gain its negative reputation with consumers as a company that will go long lengths to help facilitate its low prices, and Kernaghan decided that Gifford was the one who deserved the attack dogs brought on her.
The result created widespread changes in labor practices, but at the cost of Gifford’s reputation. Kernaghan made Kathie Lee cry, and promoted that fact for years.
“The Kathie Lee Gifford thing literally changed the way people do business,” Kernaghan said in 2005.
The reality is that Gifford, like many other celebrities, was not aware of what the corporation was doing under the guise of the endorsement deal. She noted that she had a clause in her contract that specifically forbade the use of illegal labor practices—but that Walmart produced the clothes in poor conditions anyway. (The mistake she made was failing to actually audit this claim, which is understandable because it’s not generally an issue celebrities have to worry about with endorsements.)
Kernaghan could have just as easily targeted any other major celebrity of the era who had an endorsement deal at a big-box retailer—say, model Kathy Ireland’s long association with Kmart—and gotten similar results.
Gifford, for her part, understood the gravity of the situation and used her celebrity to help further attention on the issue, even working with the Clinton administration to draw attention to the problem. Even so, her critics continued to needle at her—in 2000, upon her departure from Live With Regis & Kathie Lee, lawyer and labor activist Jonathan D. Rosenblum—who admitted not even knowing who she was before the controversy started—called her a “sweatshop queen” and a “hypocrite” in a column that did not blame Walmart once for the fact that it was their supply chain issues that were to blame for the saga.
I understand the challenges of getting the public to care about issues of labor activism and sweatshops, but one could make the case that the targeting of Gifford at the same time that other celebrities of the era, such as Michael Jordan, could have credibly been targeted for the same thing to a possibly more dramatic effect, reeks of sexism and let the actual bad guys—the ones running the supply chains, a.k.a. Walmart, Nike, and whomever else—off the hook.
Kathie Lee was a patsy in the anti-sweatshop movement, and Walmart let her take the fall.
Can The Muppets outlive this association with Facebook Portal? God, I hope so, but it also reflects a longer-term issue that has surfaced with the brand—one that is particularly surprising, given that it’s owned by a company that now owns a lot of artistic franchises that people really care about.
Simply put, the fact that Disney rented out The Muppets to Facebook is a huge warning sign that they don’t know what to do with these icons of filling the frame, an issue cited by critics such as Slashfilm’s Josh Spiegel as far back as 2017. At the time, he took Disney to task for seemingly only putting them on YouTube and failing to transition in the creative personalities behind the scenes.
“Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and the Great Gonzo (among many others) are iconic, family-friendly faces, each able to represent a blend of hope and comic anarchy,” Spiegel wrote. “But now, we get 30-second bits where they deliver a couple brief one-liners, and that’s that. It’s easy to get a bit ruffled about who’s performing as these characters, with Frank Oz having retired and Henson having passed.”
In other words, Disney was already having brand management problems for years before they let Facebook do their bidding—which is particularly confusing given how successful it has been managing other brands it now owns, such as Marvel and Star Wars.
It does not bode well for other major franchises that will likely carry something of a secondary role under the Disney umbrella—such as, for example, The Simpsons, a relatively new acquisition for the company, and one that is already suffering from obvious blunders of creative management on Disney+.
Promoting The Muppets seems like something that Disney could so easily get right. But they keep getting it wrong. And now, this beloved franchise is, potentially, forever tainted by its association with one of the worst things Silicon Valley has ever created.
It didn’t have to be this way.