Ploy or Not, Puppy Ad Controversy Puts GoDaddy In Super Bowl Spotlight Again

Consumer backlash gets GoDaddy lots of attention, but is there really no such thing as bad publicity?

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GoDaddy has a long history of pushing the envelope with its Super Bowl ads. The brand has pulled a commercial that was met by a backlash from consumers, but there is widespread speculation the controversy was intentional. And it's a strategy that works for them year after year.

The day before Budweiser released its long-awaited Super Bowl spot featuring the triumphant return of its plucky puppy, Internet domain registrar and web hosting company GoDaddy announced it was pulling its own puppy ad and working on an alternate 30-second spot for game day.

GoDaddy, which is no stranger to controversial Super Bowl content, had said in an earlier press release that it intended to air the spot, Journey Home, with a golden retriever puppy and longtime spokeswoman Danica Patrick to “reflect the journey of many small business owners who have to be tenacious to triumph.”

However, the small business owner in this case was a puppy breeder who sold the dog via her GoDaddy website, which elicited negative consumer reaction after it was released on January 27.

GoDaddy’s New Stars

Prior to the ad’s debut, CMO Barb Rechterman told Momentology the brand had shifted in recent years from brand awareness to a focus on its utility to small business owners.

“When we entered the Super Bowl [11 years ago], we were a little company going into the Super Bowl and trying to separate ourselves a bit from Budweiser, who had multiple ads, and Pepsi, etc., and historically the ads were really more about brand awareness,” Rechterman said.

That brand awareness typically meant using supermodels in salacious spots, but Rechterman noted the new stars of its ads are simply a different kind of supermodel.

“You might not call them Bar Rafaelis, but, in GoDaddy’s eyes, [small business owners] are the superheroes of this country,” she said.

But it was not meant to be.

A Planned Controversy?

In a blog post, GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving wrote about the controversy and said the brand would pull the spot, running a different ad “we hope…makes you laugh,” while reassuring consumers the GoDaddy puppy “came to us from a reputable and loving breeder.”

But many think it was a deliberate attempt to drum up press.

“Obviously it is their MO,” writes Augustine Fou, the self-described Digital Consigliere.

Jason Burby, president of the Americas at creative agency Possible, agreed.

“I think this is all planned,” Burby said. “When have they shied away from controversy? I am willing to bet they are loving the controversy. Yes, it is away from the blatant sexual nature of past ads, so it allows them to say they are cleaning it up, but, in the same way, this allows them to get attention and break through the noise of Super Bowl week.”

In an email, a GoDaddy rep wrote, simply, “Not a ploy.”

But, Burby adds, “They will surely deny it was intentional or planned, apologize and continue to keep it in the news by doing so.”

So, too, said Michael Hussey, CEO of social media audience analytics firm StatSocial.

“This is straight out of the GoDaddy PR playbook. Millions of people are seeing the GoDaddy brand name today that might never have noticed before,” he said. “It works for them every year, like clockwork.”

Is All Publicity Good Publicity?

In addition, Hussey also notes GoDaddy has a unique business model in which it is “a major pain in the neck to change to a different domain and web hosting company” and so their customer retention rates “are likely very high and something like this is going to drive a lot more new customers,” which, he adds, is many more than they’ll lose.

“Because of the nature of their business, GoDaddy obviously believes all press is good press,” Hussey adds.

The ad “was either the dumbest attempt to create a controversial ad that I’ve heard of in years…or it was a deliberate attempt to generate buzz ahead of the Super Bowl,” echoes Greg Jarboe, president of Internet marketing services firm SEO-PR. “In other words, the puppy was being used as a ‘stalking horse,’ i.e. a false pretext concealing someone’s real intentions.”

Connecting With Consumers: GoDaddy vs. Budweiser

Regardless of GoDaddy’s intent, Budweiser’s Lost Dog spot, which debuted January 28, had nearly 1 million views and quickly counting in its first day and, per Topsy, the related hashtag #BestBuds generated about 15,000 tweets in 24 hours.

So far, commenters on YouTube at least seem to connect with the content, adding posts like, “Not a dog person at all….This Superbowl commercial by Budweiser though, Lost Puppy…THIS is how to do a commercial with a puppy GoDaddy. This one hits even ME in the feels,” and “Oh bloomin’ heck!!! Eyes are sweating like crazy now.”

Tessa Wegert, communications director at digital marketing agency Enlighten, notes this connection Budweiser has forged with consumers via its puppy is something GoDaddy should have considered.

“The overwhelmingly positive response to the Budweiser puppy spot on which this ad was based should have been seen as a harbinger for the consumer backlash that GoDaddy is facing now,” Wegert said. “There’s a difference between a brand playing on heartstrings and a brand mocking the emotional storytelling strategy that’s become so popular among Super Bowl advertisers and viewers, both.”

Did GoDaddy Fumble Or Score?

Online reputation management guru Andy Beal said that no matter what, GoDaddy wins either way.

“When you walk such a fine line, you have to accept that you will often overstep the mark and cause an uproar. They have nothing to lose by pulling the ad,” Beal said. “Those that like their sensationalism will see nothing wrong with the ad, while those that oppose it will commend them for their decision to pull it.”

However, there is one small point where Boston-based Jarboe disagrees slightly with his peers.

“If there is no such thing as bad press, then the New England Patriots have had a very good 10 days,” Jarboe added, referring to DeflateGate.

What do you think? Was this all an attempt to drum up additional Super Bowl press? And is it effective?