News-jacking – clever or crass?

Published on
March 17, 2014

Turning a topical news story into a marketing vehicle, or ‘news-jacking’, can demonstrate the quick-wittedness of an organisation’s creative department or agency. It can present the brand as clever, cute, and highly relevant.

But how do you know if it’s the right approach for your organisation or brand? Sometimes this risky approach really hits the mark, and sometimes it is criticised as inappropriate, or even worse, alienates an audience and damages a brand’s reputation or bottom line.

It goes without saying that any marketing or advertising activity must align with your brand and the audiences you’re reaching out to. News-jacking activities are not constrained to consumer brands. Consider what news would peak your audience’s interest and be ready to contribute or leverage the news event to tell your message.

Spirit Airlines recently took a huge risk, using the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado as the basis for a marketing campaign. The airline industry is traditionally conservative due to concerns about the safety of air travel. In addition, the issue of legalising marijuana is highly controversial and surrounded by scientific and legal debate not just in Colorado, but globally.

Spirit Airlines ran the risk of potential customers opposed to the legalisation deciding not to travel with the airline if they were offended by this campaign, which could have significant financial implications.

The majority of consumers seemed to appreciate the humour, although a few questioned the legality of marijuana and airline travel. Much of the commentary was around the issue of marijuana legalisation itself. The company is known for using this marketing approach and has had less success in the past, with a prior tactical ad leveraging allegations of the Toronto mayor accused of smoking drugs generating overwhelmingly negative comments from consumers.

In another example, Nando’s Australia chicken restaurants consistently used ‘news-jacking’ as a primary marketing vehicle – hooking onto topical news stories, with ads often appearing the same day as the breaking news.

Most recently, convicted Australian drug-smuggler Schapelle Corby was parodied by the company on the day of her parole hearing. For Nando’s, a fast-food brand competing on a daily basis for the short-attention span of fickle customers, this tactical approach raised brand awareness quickly (and cheaply), with the brand predominantly using its already-engaged social media community as a channel for communication.

Nando’s has used this approach in many of its international markets, such as South Africa, so we can probably assume this approach is part of a wider business strategy.

Consumer sentiment to the Nando’s ad was mixed, ranging from online commentators vowing never to eat Nando’s chicken again, to others seeing humour in the ad and telling those opposed to ‘lighten up’.

If there is an issue in the media that’s grabbing a lot of attention, it can be enticing to jump on the bandwagon and use it as a way to draw attention to your organisation and talk about your company.

But before you rush out and brief your agency to develop an ad based around the news of the day, go back to basic marketing principles to see if this response is right for your organisation.

Why are you doing this?

Is it something you would have considered when developing the yearly business or marketing plan? Does it feed into your overall business and marketing objectives? Can you measure the results with increased sales, click-throughs or awareness?

Who is your target audience?

Think about your target audience (not just the masses). Is it a topic they care about, have a strong opinion about, and does what you want to say align with their opinion? You risk alienating stakeholders if your news-jacking offends them or turns them off.

Does it clash with any of your brand’s principles or its positioning? If so, it could come across as confusing for your brand loyalists.

How will you execute it?

Which channels will you use to communicate this message? There’s no use using print media if your audience is online.

Social media makes it easier for brands to be more responsive, but again, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right approach for your brand.

For further information about integrated marketing communication campaigns, please contact Rob Lovegrove, Group Manager Integrated Marketing Communication on 07 3229 4499 or