British bug-killing company Rentokil recently put out a press release containing made-up numbers about the prevalance of bug infestations on public transport. The missive — "2,000 bugs taking a ride in every train compartment," parsed one quality daily — resulted in widespread condemnation. Especially on Twitter, where Rentokil went from zero to defensive in record time.
And bafflement resulted:
I asked Rentokil for more details on what vehicles they had studied, where, and how, what was counted, how the bugs were collected, and so on. … [but] No buses were studied, and no trains were studied either. Brands2Life and Rentokil both declined to show me … Wherever it came from, these numbers did not come from measurements and counts, they are actually based on a "theoretical model".
That was Ben Goldacre at Bad Science. But what does he know? Misleading claims, it turns out, have an undeservedly bad rap! Massaged facts and scare tactics are effective promotional tools, according to someone representing themselves as the chief of a PR company, RMS:
Love it, love it, love it. Three things.
1) The initial 'scare' press release – brilliant. Did exactly what it was intended to – got published everywhere, got people talking and raised Rentokil's profile while conveying the message of what it does – KILL BUGS.
2) Everyone who's has been offended by the massaging of facts in that initial story appears to be in the marketing profession – surely you should know better. Consumers – yes, those people Rentokil is seeking to attract – will now be aware of the name and what it does. They will not be indulging themselves in theoretical/philosophical talk about the actual figures – they will be scared witless about bugs and moved to pick up the phone to Rentokil. Surely, all you marketeers out there get this?
RMS, however, is ethicy. Its website says "No fluff. No lies. No empty promises." What part of "surely you should know better" does this company not understand? Perhaps the part that knows the Advertising Standards Authority also "gets this."
The comment prior, similarly laudatory of Rentokil's ingenious 'spin, apologize, grovel' marketing strategy, oddly is signed with the name of another RMS client.
For its part, Rentokil no longer appears interested in innovative viral marketing. Its own official blog oscillates between "routine" maintenance downtime and increasingly prostrate apologies, one of which flatly states that the press release was "wrong and misleading."