Netregistry at CeBIT: Nurses, marketing and controversy

Netregistry at CeBIT: Nurses, marketing and controversy

Netregistry at CeBITIf one thing is true about marketing, it’s that it can be unpredictable. One truism that was drummed into us in the various social media panels at CeBIT 2009 is that you can’t plan to go viral, you can’t predict a hit and you can’t control human behaviour. Makes my job as a marketer more interesting!

Nowhere else was this more evident than in the online reaction to the Netregistry stand at this year’s CeBIT. (Read the Netregistry blog). Depending on who you listen to, we in the marketing department are either creative genius’ or denegrators of women who should be flogged. What seemed such a simple idea has divided commentators and resulted in national press coverage on news.com.au.

View the stand


The day started positively with popular Crikey journo and prolific Twitterer Stilgherrian commenting on the “naughty nurses”. The ensuing Tweets from (predominantly male) CeBIT attendees, agreeing with Stilgherrian or asking for more information or pics, prompted Pia Waugh to tweet.

Suddenly, the mood changed. Pia’s comment was retweeted around the web and others added their voices.

The Twitter Effect

We know how effective Twitter is at disseminating information and content. In this case, the idea that Netregistry had a couple of women dressed as nurses was fed through a filter of chinese whispers so that others who weren’t even in attendance at the expo began commenting. It wasn’t long before the ‘Netregistry naughty nurses’ were frequently being described as ‘scantily clad’ and ‘sleezy’ and that Netregistry was using sex to sell products by those who had not seen the stand or the pretty well covered up nurses.

In contrast, the vast majority of those who did attend the stand had nothing to complain about. We were continually complimented on the creative and humourous approach we had taken to a boring topic and quite a few people made a point of coming to the stand because of this. As a result, we obtained more leads and generated more immediate sales than we ever expected – and before you ask, from both male and female business people.

But the Twitter stream is an unstoppable beast when it gets going. All mention of the medical theme, of the doctors and other staff, of the wider creative campaign, were forgotten on Twitter. It isn’t surprising that those outside the event who saw these tweets interpreted a far different image than was the reality.

The ‘Twitter uproar’ resulted in a couple of online IT stories on TechWired and ZDNet and most CeBIT coverage led with the controversial Netregistry stand. Thankfully, the majority of comments responding to these stories were broadly supportive of the stand, of Netregistry and of our marketing. Some typical responses appeared on the various stories.

Well obviously the marketing worked; before today I’d never heard of Netregistry – now I have.

I am a female in the IT industry .. and I am not in the least bit offended. Some women need to get a life and stop with this victim mentality.

With all the fuss they created by doing that, I just registered 5 domain names with them and I never heard of them before! Good marketing!

Of course, not all comments were supportive, but the vast majority were, and praised the marketing that managed to get national coverage out of a small stand in a busy expo. Yet, that would be to give us credit when there was no way we could have predicted this media reaction.

Dressed down for dressing up

There is a distinct irony here. The Netregistry stand was not the only one to have attractive women fronting it. Various stands had promo girls in hot pants and tight singlets, pouting and flirting with passers-by. Yet none of the uproar was ever directed at these stands – no tweets complaining of shabby brands or sleezy tactics. Therefore, we can only conclude that the issue was that we used nurse costumes, not the use of women on our stand – booth babes as some derogatorily call them. This point really interests me, especially as we had taken great pains to find nurse costumes that were not of the – ahem, bedroom variety. The girls also wore leggings under their costumes so as not to show too much flesh, as we were so concerned with the ‘booth babe’ tag.

But all our precautions failed as the mere suggestion of dressing as a nurse was enough to have us pilloried as sexist, mysoginist neanderthals by some.

Let’s analyse this for a moment. One of our rejected ideas was to use a ‘superhero’ motif. (yeah, yeah, bad idea – that’s why we rejected it). But think about what would happen if we had a Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman on the stand? Would we be accused of using sex and denegrating women because we dressed someone in a Wonder Woman outfit – all lycra and short briefs and gold brassiere? After the last three days, I’m begining to think that yes, we would, despite the broader theme and the blokes in related costume. I could argue that the blame should lie with the original creators of Wonder Woman, but that’s not the only character, and nurses not the only industry or dress-up concept that has become fetishised and associated with sex and/or sexism.

Does this mean that costumes are out? Creative ideas too dangerous? Women dressing up completely off-limits? I would like to think not. I would like to think people have enough intelligence to know when someone is dressing up as a nurse as part of a medical theme and when they are dressing as a nurse specifically to be fetishised or titillating. Maybe I’m wrong for thinking so.

Gender Stereotyping

 

Given the outcry, one of the claims aimed at me this last three days has been gender stereotyping. Why are all the men doctors and the women nurses? Many of the commentators missed that we also had two male nurses dressed in green scrubs, but because they weren’t controversial they weren’t discussed and became forgotten in the Chinese whispers. It’s not like we could put two blokes into the same nurse costumes we had for the women; you go to a shop and ask for scrubs, which is exactly what we did.

So, you ask, why weren’t the female nurses in scrubs too? Marketing is often required to present an instantly recognisable concept. When people think ‘nurse’ they think of a costume similar to what we used. So we did. Just as we put our doctors in white coats and plastic stethoscopes, not because that’s the reality but because that is what people expect to see.

Therefore, by presenting what people would expect to see in order to convey the theme, it could be argued that we bought into and further contributed to that same gender stereotyping.

There is no doubt that gender stereotyping is an issue, but it is still rife throughout media and marketing. That isn’t to excuse our stand (as I don’t particularly feel it needs excusing), but to explain how gender stereotyping is still a commonly used shorthand to achieve a fast message. In TV commercials, business people are still predominantly men – particularly if they are either bumbling or corrupt. Housewife ads still proliferate, despite the shift in men sharing more household duties and women now more commonly having careers. The marketing shorthand remains. Yes, it’s lazy and yes, it’s unfortunate but, on a certain level, it’s understandable when conveying a specific marketing message in an easily recognisable way. What is interesting is that the male nurses were ignored, demonstrating that the high recognition of a female nurse outweighs the low recognition of a male nurse in scrubs, suggesting public perception still contributes greatly to this stereotyping in a feedback loop of attitudes.

Our two doctors were members of our sales team. Sadly it was mere bad luck that, for the first time since I started with Netregistry, we don’t have a woman working in our sales department. Therefore, our gender stereotyping was complete in the eyes of our critics, even if it did come about more by chance than design.

The terrors of timing

I had a long and interesting chat with Kate Carruthers of Silicon Federation about what was evolving into a very interesting marketing case study. She raised the interesting point that on the eve of the expo, ABC’s Four Corners program had broadcast a highly controversial and publicised documentary that revealed wide-spread and shocking allegations of rape, group sex and female abuse within Australian football. The program received wide-spread coverage and resulted in major reputations turning to mud overnight.

The community outrage following the program was what would have been on people’s minds as they entered CeBIT. Righteous indignation is a powerful thing. Once your gander is up, it doesn’t take much to keep it there. It could well be that the unfortunate timing of this program, hours before our stand opened to the public, coloured the perception of some people on hearing we had dressed two attractive women up as nurses. Could we ever have predicted such a thing? Probably not. Public perceptions can move, shift and change at incredible speed and the zeitgeist is beyond anyone’s control. With the current zeitgeist being highly critical of, and immensely sensitive to, any misreperesentations (perceived or otherwise) of women, we may well have been victim to bad luck.

Or were we?

Do the ends justify the means?

The naysayers will hate me for saying this, but our stand was the most successful strategy we have ever carried out – and definitely owes a lot of that success to the media coverage following the criticisms. I’m not normally a subscriber to the adage ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’, yet there is no doubt the brand saw real value in reaching the front page of News.com.au and various other websites. Netregistry had the most talked about stand at CeBIT. The name has reached new people who may never have otherwise heard of us. Sales have been generated as a result. The amount of press we have received would have cost us thousands if we had used normal PR channels, but instead we rode a rollercoaster of free publicity for three days and came out the other end relatively unscathed but incredibly better off.

I’m also not a fan of ‘the ends justify the means’ argument that some marketers put forward when they release controversial campaigns. There is no doubt my bosses are hugely impressed with the result and the handling of the coverage. Goals achieved and smashed, brand recognition raised – job done. Sure, I could sit back and cast off all critics with the knowledge that Netregistry is extremely happy, but I would like to think I have a little more consideration for how goals are achieved. The explosion of coverage of the last three days was certainly not planned, was pretty stressful and was definitely outside of our control for the most part. If we had planned this, it wouldn’t have happened – you can’t predict the zeitgeist. But even if we had intended a PR explosion, it is a risky proposition to court criticism. I don’t recommend it.

Comments

  1. The Twitter snowball effect is just another example of how the power of social networking multiplies and accelerates real world phenomena. Rumours spread, get twisted, people who don’t know the facts jump on the bandwagon.
    The key to stopping all this is better education and training in critical thinking, in testing information for authenticity, views for validity, and generally in how to objectively research and analyse.
    Shallow knee jerk responses are just mob mentality that manifests itself frequently enough elsewhere in the real world.
    The media need to be more thoughtful before promulgating Twitter-sourced material. And there’s a difference between propagating erroneous information and writing a story noting that erroneous information is being propagated.
    I met the nurses at CeBIT, thought it was a fun exercise, and made sure I collected my NetRegistry Health Kit. Congratulations Sam Shetty on an innovative exercise that brought a smile to most CeBIT visitors.

  2. All hail the new Lyndon… 🙂

  3. Hey, thanks for this article. In Pia Waugh’s defence (and those like her), I think the outrage was caused by the requests for pics of the nurses and the lewd comments that were sparked, not necessarily by the nurses or the stand itself.
    Having smart marketing is good, and I thank Kimota for debunking some of the hype around this situation. That said, crude, lewd and sexist comments are not welcome. Those that engage in that behaviour are promulgating the idea that women don’t belong in tech, on the internet, or even at an event such as CeBIT. In Pia’s words: “there are enough turnoffs to women in ICT without this”.
    L

  4. Kimota says

    No need to defend Pia as there’s nothing to defend – it was a perfectly understandable comment – one that I responded to myself by agreeing with her that there should be better things to tweet about than our nurses. She also clarified that her comment was directed at the oglers rather than at the stand, but it did spark the discussion and backlash that got the controversy in motion.