Carnival solves massive ship problems by firing ad agency


What do you do when your product keeps breaking down while in use, costs dozens of customers their lives, endangers the health of hundreds of others, and fails to deliver what thousands paid for?

Well, if you’re Carnival Cruise Lines, you fire your advertising agency, according to a May 30 Advertising Age report.

Brands have a habit of firing agencies over issues that have nothing to do with advertising. GM, for example, did it to undermine ousted global CMO Joel Ewanick’s legacy. JCPenney did it because their marketing guru Sergio Zyman likes working with big agencies – like the one that helped him disastrously introduce New Coke.

But compared to Carnival, these decisions seem to have Mr. Spock-like rationality.

A sea of problems

As the world’s largest cruise company (They also own Holland America, Princess Cruises, Seabourn, P&O Cruises, Cunard, Costa Cruises, Aida and Iberocruceros.), they’re the heir, by mergers and acquisitions, to the line that owned the Titanic. And while none of their ships has struck an iceberg and sunk in the North Atlantic – at least not yet – this past year they’ve been awash in a sea of problems:

  • A February, 2013, engine-room fire left the Carnival Triumph powerless and adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. Some 4,200 passengers underwent a “Cruise from Hell,” with no toilet facilities or climate control and scarcities of food and water for four days, until the ship could be towed into Mobile, about 500 miles from Galveston, the scheduled destination. The cruise line had to cancel the ship’s next 12 cruises.
  • In April, while under repair in Mobile, the ship became unmoored in strong winds, crashed into another vessel and sustained a 20-foot-long gash in its side.
  • A few weeks after that, fuel barge explosions forced workers to evacuate.
  • Because of a steering system malfunction, the Carnival Elation needed to be escorted, at reduced speed, by a tug in March.
  • The same month, a propulsion unit breakdown forced the Carnival Legend to s-l-o-w-l-y limp into Tampa, well behind schedule.
  • Also in March, power interruptions stranded 4,363 Carnival Dream passengers in St. Maarten awaiting airlift to Orlando and busing to Port Canaveral, where their cars were parked. While in port, passengers, whose toilets were overflowing because of the power outage, were not allowed to leave the ship and use onshore facilities.
  • Fresh from a $155 million overhaul in dry dock, the Carnival Sunshine (formerly the Carnival Destiny) set sail from Venice, Italy, in May with “minor” cabin problems and parts of the top decks closed – along with the new WaterWorks water park, SportsSquare recreational area and the main swimming pool – because of unfinished work. Its 3,006 paying passengers were not amused.
  • In 2010, the Carnival Splendor had a shipboard fire due to “catastrophic failure of a diesel generator.”
  • “The Coast Guard has responded to a string of 90 marine casualty incidents with passengers aboard Carnival ships in the last five years,” the West Virginia Democrat reported. That’s an average of 18 a year, or three every two months. Since the Coast Guard serves US territorial waters, this total does not include the Mediterranean. Nor does it include Australian waters, where two Carnival passengers fell overboard and drowned.

Of course, all that pales in comparison to the Carnival-owned Costa Concordia, which ran aground off Giglio, Italy, in January, 2012, when the captain didn’t bother to look at his maps. Crashing on the rocks killed 32 passengers and stranded 300 others while the captain fled the ship and watched from shore without even sending a distress call.

But though these are all serious product problems, they’re not advertising problems. Which makes Carnival’s “solution” all the more puzzling.

The solution???

It’s not the least bit surprising that Carnival’s revenues are down $24 million from last year. Nor is it surprising that its share price is down 2.3 percent.

The surprising thing is what Carnival’s doing about it.

“Carnival Cruise Lines is currently conducting a review of its media buying and planning agency resources,” said the company in a statement, noting that it “has not conducted a review in several years and is currently seeking a media buying and planning agency capable of effectively building and managing integrated plans across both traditional and digital media.”

According to Ad Age, “Carnival this week sent out a document inviting pitches to a number of large media shops, as part of which it referenced the negative publicity it has experienced as a result of its crises.” The incumbent media agency, Havas Media, was not one of them.

You’ll note the reference above to “integrated plans across both traditional and digital media.” Carnival has been making heavy use of social media “as part of its crisis communications strategy in order to address criticisms about the safety of its ships.” (Also passenger complaints about the mushroom treatment they got from Carnival crews in the midst of these crises.)

So a part – maybe the main part – of the new media agency’s job will be to “help more positive stories about Carnival surface in more media channels, both online and offline.” This is magical thinking, similar to that of national politicians who try to explain away unpopularity of government programs (Obamacare somehow comes to mind) by claiming there’s no problem with the program, only with the public’s understanding of the messaging.

Better advertising may hurt more than it helps

Changing its media agency, not its creative agency, could have no visible effect on Carnival’s advertising. This could actually be a good outcome, because this is a situation where better advertising – or even more efficiently targeted advertising – could make things worse.

As Bill Bernbach, founder of both the agency bearing his name (Doyle Dane Bernbach) and, arguably, of the 1960s Creative Revolution famously said, “Nothing destroys a bad product faster than great advertising.” This is because great advertising gets more people to try the product sooner – and if they hate it, to swear off it and tell all their friends right away.

So maybe what Carnival needs is worse, not better, advertising – at least until they get all the product problems they’ve been ignoring squared away.


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