What chocolate-covered lies can teach about marketing

By now, half the world has heard about the chocolate dream that died last week in Glasgow, Scotland. Billed as an immersive event, “Willy’s Chocolate Experience” went viral for all the wrong reasons. We could examine the errors in planning, staffing, design, execution, logistics, ethics and price point that led to the fiasco. But we are a marketing firm, so we’ll limit ourselves.

In a way, one can marvel at how this event caught fire (or Fyre?) and became incredibly well known with almost no investment in marketing or a PR campaign. But the old adage “all publicity is good publicity” does not apply here. Not when the newsworthy thing is the event’s utterly breathtaking dishonesty.

First, the idea for the event sprang from a desire to capitalize on (but not pay for rights to) someone else’s intellectual property. Then the organization’s use of AI, along with what can charitably be called optimistic enthusiasm in estimating what they could actually deliver, combined to create a one-two punch of disappointment and disgust that left young patrons in tears and their parents up in arms.

“The event was put on by a London-based company called House of Illuminati,” noted a Vox article, “which relied heavily on ads that did not depict any aspect of the event itself.” In fairness, House of Illuminati has issued refunds and, I’m betting, has learned a painful lesson.

There’s a popular tale about Gene Wilder approaching his character in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Wilder insisted that upon first appearance, Willy Wonka should walk hunched over with a cane, appear to fall, then tuck into a somersault. He explained that “from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

That’s perfect for a movie. Not so much for a marketing campaign.

“Honesty is the cornerstone of a successful marketing campaign, and it’s crucial to maintain it at all times,” stresses Alex Raffi, creative director here at Imagine. “A single post or comment can reach thousands, maybe even millions of people, so it’s essential to be transparent and authentic in promoting your brand.”

The AI art used by promoters of this not-Wonka-for-legal-reasons event have figured prominently in news stories because generative AI is already associated with scams. Even before this most recent dustup, when I spotted ads for events, experiences, or real-life places that used obvious AI imagery, my inner BS detector beeped and I instantly thought “Well now, what are they hiding?”

If what you are offering is worthwhile, it should be attractive to consumers as-is. The camera doesn’t lie, and showing potential customers a well-staged and well-lit but authentic image of what you have to offer is making your first impression an honest one. A professional photographer is therefore worth an infinite number of prompt-generated AI images — a sentiment I’m sure Imagine’s resident photographer, Tiffannie Bond, can attest to.

Celestia Ward, Imagine’s PR coordinator, remembers fondly the annual “Wonkafest” she and friends threw in college — advertised simply, and honestly, as a chance to sing along to the movie while being pelted with handfuls of cheap candy thrown into audience, it grew into one of the most popular and beloved events on campus. 



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