Here's a complete breakdown of this PR crisis, including the facts, the reactions, and expert views on not only where the brand went wrong but also what it could be doing to repair the damage.
- The contest
- Where things went wrong
- The outrage
- Panasonic's response
- What Panasonic should be doing instead
- Our view
- Update (Nov 17)
In October, to promote its beauty-care electronics range, Panasonic Malaysia announced the "I love myself" beauty contest. The mechanics of the contest seemed simple. Users posted a photo of themselves on Facebook and Instagram and tagged the brand's Instagram account.
The contest's terms and conditions only asked for contestants to be aged 20 and above. No other physical requirements were stipulated. The same T&C list then explained the contest mechanics:
Finalists will be chosen by the Organiser based on the judges’ evaluation and online votes. The judging system is as follows: 70% for judges’ evaluation, 30% for online votes. The Organiser’s decision shall be final and no further correspondence or appeal will be entertained.
Based on the following graphic, which accompanied the call for entries, 216 contestants would be shortlisted for a free makeover at roadshows, based on online voting. Then, in the final round, 20 finalists would be selected based on online voting (30 per cent) and the judges' decision (70 per cent).
Viewing the contest as one that genuinely celebrated a diverse idea of beauty, Ashley Greig, a lecturer of English at Sunway College University, decided to participate. Her entry ended up garnering around 1,400 votes—the highest out of the several thousand entries in the contest. When the shortlist of 216 was published, Greig eagerly looked for herself, only to find that she'd been passed over.
Confused, Greig emailed Panasonic asking why she had not been included. Their response, then and since, has been that the shortlist was based on the 30 per cent / 70 per cent rule.
When asked if the contest did in fact use a particular definition of physical beauty as a criterion (at a glance, all 216 contestants on the shortlist are slim, young and attractive), the brand merely reiterated its stance and then proceeded to "ignore her" ever since, Greig told Campaign Asia-Pacific.
Disappointed, Greig turned to Facebook and wrote a heartfelt post about her experience. Her friends shared the post, and it was eventually picked up by a columnist for an English national news site. Greig also went on to write a column about the event on yet another national news site.
According to Greig, friends and even people she'd never met stormed Panasonic's Facebook site, expressing their anger at the perceived unfairness, the breaking of its own contest rules, and the use of online voting for "cheap publicity".
Since then, the comments have spiralled into discussions around Panasonic's discrimination against women of diversity and the propagation of patriarcial and stereotypical notions of beauty.
Sadly the brand has done little to quench the flames, merely choosing to reiterate time and time again that the decision was made on a 30 per cent online vote and 70 per cent judge's choice, without acknowledging the discrepency between the terms "finalists" and "shortlist" in its terms and conditions. The brand has also continued to insist on the search for "inner radiance" without acknowledging that outer beauty appears to count for more.
When approached for comment by Campaign Asia-Pacific, the only response Panasonic would issue after numerous emails and phone calls over a period of nearly 48 hours is as follows:
Panasonic believes in empowering women to celebrate their femininity and aims to support them in their grooming and wellness regime. I Love Myself Beauty Search 2014 is aimed at encouraging this and identifying an ambassador who could become an inspiration for all. Our initial 216 finalists, each beautiful and unique in their own ways, are selected based on a pre-defined 70% judges' panel and 30% online votes criteria. We regret that there has been some confusion regarding the selection process, and would like to reiterate that we remain true to our commitment in celebrating the uniqueness of every woman and help them glow with their inner radiance.
When questioned about the terminology in its terms and conditions, Panasonic again only said:
The 216 participants were also selected based on a pre-defined 70% judges' panel and 30% online votes criteria.
Update (4:15pm): Panasonic responded to a query about whether it has any plans to apologise for the misunderstanding with the following:
We regret that there has been some confusion and would like to highlight that we have responded to and addressed comments regarding the selection process, during the course of the , I Love Myself Beauty Search 2014.
Panasonic should be asking itself if it should ever have ventured into a realm it is so ill-prepared to deal with. It's difficult not to conclude that the brand, while desirous of the publicity generated by a social-media-driven voting process, had no intention of ever relinquishing control. Furthermore, the beauty contest seems at odds with the Panasonic brand, noted independent social-media consultant Juliana Loh.
"Panasonic is synonymous with imaging and technology, so in terms of the 'inner beauty' campaign, I fail to see the strategic core idea behind it," Loh said. "Just isn’t a right fit, so not sure what the objective of their marketing team was."
Having made the decision to go ahead, the brand should at least have honoured the values it was promoting, commented Fergus Hay, Social@Ogilvy's head of APAC. "If a brand is going to engage in the modern communications world, then it must be honest to the values expected from the consumers. If you get a voting outcome you don't predict then go with it: the people have spoken and we need to allow consumers to direct the initiatives."
At the very least, Loh said, the brand should honour the way most people interpreted the contest rules and include Greig in the shortlist of 216.
Now that it's too late to go back, how bad is it for Panasonic? Pretty bad, according to social-media experts.
"Any activity or campaign launched on social media has a larger and longer-term ripple effect, and in this instance, from an integrity and values standpoint, there will definitely be implications—whether it is negative brand perception or even deciding against considering to purchase Panasonic’s products," said Derek Tan, executive director of social media for IPG Mediabrands' Asia World Markets.
To take steps toward fixing this, the brand should first get its head out of the sand and stop re-stating the terms and conditions it is essentially failing to honour.
"My advice would be to open up and engage the vocal consumers in an honest debate, explain their actions in a blog post, come forwards with a mea culpa and then start a community discussion about the perceptions of beauty," Hay said. "To some extent the damage has been done, but demonstrating transparency and honesty and a desire to put things right could well turn a violent response into a positive one."
Next, the brand should seek to make restitution to Greig. "It should take this opportunity to celebrate real beauty by giving credence to the victim'," advised Tan. "Speed is vital in turning this from an attack story into a story of triumph. Inviting the girl with the highest votes back to the fold or even serve as a judge would be a good idea."
To take this further, Loh suggested that Panasonic should stop posting aggravating, non-apologetic responses to criticisms on its Facebook page and perhaps reach out to a brand like Dove, which is known for having gotten 'inner beauty' right. "Pitch them an idea that they can leverage from this as a brand, generating lots of positive PR, and use them as a voice to divert the anger. Dove will get the hero limelight for diving in—but it diverts all that bad PR away from Panasonic during this heated moment. And then in light of the misunderstanding, Panasonic can try to redeem itself by seeding a panasonic photo shoot with a camcorder in collaboration with Dove on celebrating inner beauty, acknowledging that T&Cs were not clear and it was not their intention to discriminate or hurt anyone’s feelings."
In letting more than a week go by since announcing the shortlist results on November 5, Panasonic Beauty Malaysia has lost any advantage a speedy response may have granted it. It is also making a grave error in reiterating its terms and conditions time and again with no acknowledgement of the unclear terminology. Insisting on 'inner beauty' from start to finish in the face of all logic also makes the brand appear at best misguided and at worst, insincere and derogatory.
Finally, we question the reasoning that led the brand to exclude its most popular contestant, and likely a key online opinion leader, from a massive 'shortlist' of 216 individuals. To put it cynically, it would have been easy enough to include her initially and whittle her out later, in perfect accordance with the rules—if attractive hair-dryer holders were all the company sought in the end.
Panasonic appears to be reconsidering its contest mechanics and has posted that it regrets "that there has been some confusion regarding the selection process". While this seems to be the right move for the brand, its assurances that it cares about "empowering women" seems to only have enraged the internet more, judging by the comments on Facebook.