When you use “borrowed interest,” what exactly are you borrowing?

Timothy Hutton's ill-fated Groupon commercial

Piggybacking on the Dali Lama didn't work

Sometimes when you’re trying to figure out what to talk about in your marketing communications, the temptation to “borrow interest” from a totally unrelated topic is too hard to pass up.

Maybe because it’s relatively easy to borrow interest from something or someone who is well-known. And relatively hard to perform the real work that’s often required to communicate real value.

But think twice before using someone else’s fame, reputation or notoriety to get attention for yourself. It can backfire.

A couple of examples of poorly borrowed interest

Remember the Groupon commercials from the 2011 Super Bowl? If you do, it’s only because they were in such bad taste. Timothy Hutton making light of Tibet, Liz Hurley making light of the rainforest, and Cuba Gooding Jr. making light of endangered whales. The ads generated so much negative feedback, Groupon removed them from YouTube. It was supposed to be a coming-out party for a new major brand, but the ads must be considered a major fail. (The funny part? Groupon established itself through online/social media. Why did they feel the need to join the old-school, traditional advertising crowd?)

Then there was the recent snafu with Kenneth Cole, tweeting: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” I wonder: At what point did people who risk their lives against a brutal dictator become an opportunity to sell overpriced footwear?

You can find dozens, if not hundreds of examples of high-profile marketing communications that seek to leverage someone else’s fame, fortune or misfortune to grab some easy publicity. Sometimes it works. Usually it falls flat. Sometimes it’s a disaster.

Why not be authentic?

Borrowed interest is nothing more than bait-and-switch: We pretend to talk about something you’re interested in, then change the subject once we have your attention. How much better to talk about your own goods and services in a real human voice, rather than introducing irrelevant ideas.

The era of social media amplifies phoniness. Customers don’t like phonies. So always ask yourself a question before you publish:

Is this communication an honest reflection of me and my company?

The answer keep you out of hot water, and help you form honest relationships with the people you want to engage.




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