Skechers’ newest ad fails to do Advertising Testing: Why it’s not always safe to rely on your gut!

Last month, my blogroll and tumblr dashboard were bombarded with links to a petition to “Tell Skechers to Discontinue Shape Ups for Girls!” — a new product with an ad campaign targeting elementary-school-aged girls. As I read through posts talking about body-shaming preschoolers and watched the advertisement myself, I wondered how Skechers had tested the ad with parents and how they had considered any concerns that had popped up in testing. Did they see what I was seeing? Why weren’t they advertising to boys? Wasn’t this the same product Kim Kardashian clearly oozed sex all over in that superbowl ad? And most importantly: Why should a child have to “shape up”?

So I ran through a sample of six parents (age 25-45) with at least one daughter age 3-12 and a total household income of $30,000 or more to see if any of this could have been avoided, or at least predicted. (I also threw in a custom screener to be sure the respondents were aware of the Skechers brand).

As the Skechers ad testers probably found, three of the six respondents had positive reactions to the ad and were interested in purchasing the product for their daughters:

“I think the commercial emphasizes that kids that wear shape ups will not only have fun, but that they would look good also.” – Respondent A, 37, daughter age 7.

“I think they have created a very appealing product – and have marketed it perfectly towards the 7- 12 year old girl age bracket. I know my daughter will be asking for them once she sees that commercial…I will definitely have my daughter try them on. If she is comfortable with the style and design, I would definitely purchase them for her.” – Respondent B, 38, daughter age 7.

“That they are colorful and fun for girls and helps them be active… It is trying to keeps kids away from junk food and to be more active. Also that the shoes are fun and cool looking.” – Respondent D, 36, with daughters aged 5 and 8.

However, the other half of the respondents interviewed were not at all interested in the product, making it clear that they did not agree with selling a “shape up” product to young girls:

“Young girls shouldn’t have to wear shape ups to get fit. they should just be out playing and they aren’t cool for older girls… my girls don’t need to shape up.” – Respondent C, 41, with daughters age 10 and 6.

“I just think that it’s unnecessary for a child to wear shoes that are meant for toning leg muscles. In some ways, it may make younger girls more self-conscious of how their legs look. I think there is too much pressure to look perfect physically and this could just be another way to add to it. Children develop naturally unlike adults who have to work at it or they lose it. I understand Shape ups for adults but not children.” – Respondent E, 38, daughter age 5.

“A lot of concerns – especially when it seems to communicate that owning this item will, in a sense, make you more popular, increase the fun you’re having – I think that makes the girls think that SOMETHING will make them happy, rather than looking deeper and finding significance in who they are and who they were created to be.” – Respondent F, 40, daughter age 11.

Though this very small sample is not completely representative, even from doing six interviews it became clear that there was a vocal group of people concerned about the product and the ad’s messaging. This kind of vocal group, even if it were the minority, should have tipped Skechers off that there would be some negative feedback to their product and campaign. Afterall, even if the ad were overwhelmingly appealing to the target group of young girls, aren’t their parents ultimately the ones buying the product? Shouldn’t their opinion be gauged as well?

This Skechers backlash could have been avoided, or at least planned and anticipated for, with even a few quick initial qualitative interviews: “What are your initial reactions to the advertisement?” “Describe what message you think the ad is trying to communicate about the Skechers Shape Ups product” or even “What concerns, if any, do you have with this product?” (by adding “if any” the question goes from being a bit leading to opening up and being objective — more on that later!).

Understanding the possibility of consumer concern, skepticism, or disapproval is imperative for any brand manager and ad project manager, negative brand image and marketing spread across Google Reader quickly, and you don’t want to find yourself blind-sided by bad press.

Update 5/12/2011: This story was also recently mentioned over at Brand Channel and Yahoo! Shine.