In this episode, the guys chat about the mystery and intrigue of an anonymous love letter and how it became a really big marketing problem. Nico talks about how perception is reality and where the line is between clever and creepy and Chad decides to buy more roses.

Italian carmaker Fiat once famously developed an idea for a new marketing campaign. The idea was cute, fun, catered towards the “independent, modern working woman”, and was meant to market Fiat’s new Cinquecento, of course. Otherwise known as the Fiat Cinq Cents to speakers or the Fiat Five Hundred to those who speak English.  After doing their homework and running a pilot test of the campaign – which, for the record, received positive results – Fiat felt that their new campaign was ready.  In March of 1994, Fiat sent letters to some 50,000 women in Spain. Each one was personally addressed and written on pink paper. In these letters, the writer heavily compliments the recipient and encourages her to go on a “little adventure” saying they believe she should because “we met again on the street yesterday and I noticed how you glanced interestedly in my direction”. The writer and the letter’s recipient were made for each other, or so the writer said.  The letters also included the line, “I only have to be with you a few minutes and, even if it doesn’t work between us, I promise you won’t forget our experience together.

Designed to be fun and also mysterious, the question as to who penned the letter was supposed to be answered six days after the first letters went out.  Fiat’s idea was charming in theory, but not in practice. Fiat had hoped to compliment their consumers and encourage them to get out and explore the world (in a new Fiat). Their PR manager in Spain said, “The campaign was supposed to play with factors like intrigue, love, and romanticism which surrounds our car advertisements.” But the impression the letters ended up giving the recipients was that of a psycophathic, sex-mad stalker. Knowing Fiat’s intentions and the reaction they expected to generate makes it fair to say that the reaction they actually got couldn’t have been further from what they were going for.

The original plan was for these 50,000 independent, modern working women to receive a second letter six days after the first in which their admirer would be revealed as the new Fiat Cinquecento. Following the release of the first letters, the newspaper El Mundo reported that the ad campaign had unleashed jealous scenes among married couples.  Worse than that, one woman canceled her weekend plans and had her brother escort her to work. She even had family members begin a private investigation.

In fact, the newspaper El Pais reported that not just one but several women felt significantly threatened by the letter. Believing they were being stalked by a psychopath, many women locked themselves inside and would only go out if they were escorted by male company. Embarrassed, Fiat stopped the campaign early once they heard about women’s fearful reactions.mFiat did end up sending out a second letter, just not the one they had originally planned. This time, it was an apology letter with a signature, a brochure, and an invitation to the closest Fiat store. These apology letters also reportedly contained a third letter explaining the campaign. 

The High Court in the city of Zaragoza fined Fiat for sending the letters. And while being called to court can’t be good for any company’s reputation, Fiat’s fine was a symbolic 155,000 pesetas (about 1,100 USD). The court also ordered the company to pay 140,000 pesetas (993.54 USD) in damages to a Zaragoza woman after she personally brought the issue to court.

Two years after their merger with Chrystler, Fiat was back in the spotlight for pointedly making women uncomfortable in 2016.  Fiat’s Argentina branch started to hand out booklets to new car owners. The booklets came with a manual on how females — referred to as co-pilots — should at least have nice legs if they were going to be co-pilots of a Fiat.  The manual also had instructions such as, “if a lady’s skirt is too short, we recommend that she travel in the backseat to keep our concentration.”

A company running two extremely sexist ads in the span of about two decades and walking away both times with little more than a slap on the wrist, ultimately points to a larger problem.Aside from perspective and awareness, what makes marketing creepy is when it gets personalized. When a brand uses information a customer hasn’t given them or, if you know anything about the downsides of ad tracking, hasn’t knowingly given them, it’s instantly more feasible for the marketing to come across as unnerving. Marketing also gets creepy when a brand uses customer information in a harmful way or in a way that is perceived as harmful or potentially harmful like Fiat’s love letters were.
Personalisation is important for connecting with customers, but forcing it into messages – either just for the sake of it or just because you can – almost always comes off as weird and inauthentic. While it might not be harmful, when brands make assumptions using customers’ personal details and data it may seem like the company knows too much – or at least more than they’re supposed to and no one wants to feel like they’re being stalked.
Oftentimes when false assumptions in marketing are incorrect or insulting it’s because they’re interpreted as racist or sexist. If you’ve listened to our episode The Brand That Made A Sexist Point then you might know that Bic has been ‘found guilty’ of sexist marketing.
“Bic For Her” may be undeniably sexist, but it never crossed the line into being creepy – at least not like Fiat did. And the Italian carmaker may have committed a creepy and sexist faux pas more than once, but they can’t be the only ones. 

An example of a company that launched an ad campaign that was creepy at first glance and sexist at second glance is Ford. Ford of India wanted to showcase the amount of trunk space in the hatchback Figo. Ford India ran three ads featuring people bound and gagged in Figo trunks. One featured three men in the trunk while the car was driven by a man. Two of the ads featured women bound and gagged in the trunk.

Fiat may have been lacking in self-awareness and perspective when their sexist ads ran in 1994 and 2016, but Ford India’s trunk campaign ran in 2013 during a national rape crisis in India.  At first, Ford’s 2013 campaign may not seem like it has much to do with blatant sexism. If that’s the case, then it’s because compared to sexism the ads primarily display either a disregard for, ignorance of, or insensitivity towards prevalent social and political issues concerning women’s health and safety and violence towards women. In other words, how creepy the ads are might distract you from how sexist they are. As “Bic For Her” and Fiat’s 2016 “co-pilot” and “alpha-male” demonstrate, the problem isn’t just ad campaigns inadvertently coming off as creepy; it’s careless and casual sexism.

What can we learn?

  • If your campaign is truly unique, there might be a good reason why nobody else has done it.
  • Pilot tests are only accurate if done well. Testing the right demographics, time frames, and objectives is vital for obtaining useful results.
  • Look back at history to prevent making the same mistakes. All Fiat had to do was look at their past campaigns to avoid the mistake they made in 2016.
  • If you want to try a personalized approach to marketing there are ways you can do it without being creepy. 
  • If all else fails, just don’t be creepy.

We talk about

[05:25] Fiat Cinquecento marketing campaign
[08:25] Aftermath
[11:00] Fiat’s response
[16:10] Fiat’s sexist ad in 2016
[20:45] The bigger problem
[24:40] Ford India fiasco
[28:10] What can be learned

Episode Script Writer: Grace WallResearch Analyst: Gertruda GilyteWebsite:

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