(MoneyWatch) A Waco, Texas, sign company hoped to make a name for itself with a pickup truck tailgate decal that looked like an abducted woman did just that -- and triggered a backlash. Then Hornet Signs compounded the problem by botching its response to the online furor.
Hornet, which creates vehicle wraps, among other things, produced a piece to make the back of a pick-up truck look like it was open and held a woman who was tied up. The woman was an employee who posed for the photo, which was put on the back of another employee's pickup.
"I wasn't expecting the reactions that we got, nor was it anything that we condone or anything else, but it was just something more or less that we had to put out there to see who notices it," said Hornet Signs owner Brad Kolb in an interview with Waco CBS affiliate KWTX. "It wasn't our intent to make this the branding of our company."
But that's what the stunt quickly became, as the image -- and the outrage -- went viral. The company's Facebook page received many negative comments saying that Hornet was misogynistic and supported rape culture, along with a smaller number supporting the company.
Not long after posting an image of the truck decal on its Facebook page, Hornet then directed people to its Google+ page, asking for reviews. And reviews it got -- one scathing one-star-out-of-five slam after another.
Kolb claims that sales of tailgate designs jumped after the controversy. That might explain why he has tried to explain the event as a "marketing experiment" and hasn't actually apologized to people offended. In fact, as of today, the image is still on the company's Google+ page. Of course, it is impossible to know whether an equally eye-catching but less offensive image might have had the same or better effect on sales.
Experts in corporate communications say that companies that find themselves in a bad situation of their own making need to take a few basic steps, the first of which should involve an apology and making amends. That didn't happen immediately.
A screen capture of some online interchanges allegedly showed one employee, Steve McCollum, deriding one commenter as someone "who thinks that her retarded opinions are valued."
Kolb did ultimately destroy the decal. And he reportedly has donated $2,500 to the local Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children.
But Kolb's tactics still raise the question of whether he is trying to benefit directly from the attention. To date he has not offered an apology, instead saying that he's trying to make positive use of the situation by "bringing awareness and finding solutions." On the Hornet website and on its Facebook page the company is running a poll about "an experiment in marketing" to see whether "controversy or compassion" will receive more attention. Hornet writes:
Unfortunately you are going to prove that controversy sells. We were hoping that it was compassion but its not going to happen. We are still waiting on those links to charities doing a great job or what we can do to help. Everyone want an apology and that's it. I want to fix the problem and am waiting on solutions. Can anyone out there help me?