Yesterday a (slightly) risqué ad for JC Penney made the rounds on the internet. It depicted two teens getting ready for a date by timing how fast they could get dressed. At the end of the ad, the boy comes over to the girl’s house and they let the stern looking Mom know they are going to “hang out” in the basement. By late morning, JC Penney officials had foolishly tried to distance themselves from the ad, claiming they never authorized it, all because supposedly it meant they condoned teenage sex.

What JC Penney failed to understand is that this ad did them far more good than harm. The people they want to reach saw it and were talking about JC Penney. When was the last time this 20th century company had any buzz on the internet. How about never? As for the people who think the video condones teen sex, chances are those people aren’t watching YouTube.

My friend, David Meerman Scott (whom I interviewed in this space back in May) wrote a column in the April issue of EContent Magazine in the form of an open letter to Warner Music Group. Scott wondered out loud why WMG would order YouTube to take down fan cell phone videos of Led Zeppelin's December, 2007 reunion concert in London when those videos were likely to stimulate sales of the band’s back catalogue. Instead, the lawyers got caught up in 20th century copyright law and lost sight of the boat load of free publicity they were getting.

I sent David a link to an Ars Technica article regarding the JC Penney video yesterday and suggested perhaps it was time for another letter to another clueless company about what this internet thing is all about. His response: “Amazing.” Scott has the upper hand having literally written several books on internet marketing. He knows what he’s talking about. Unfortunately, short-sighted companies using outdated publicity models think TV ads are going to grab the attention of the teen buyer all companies seem so desperately to want to attract. It’s ads like the one that made the rounds yesterday that gets their attention. Fact is I wouldn't be writing this entry if it weren't for this video, so it's just a gift that keeps on giving.

On a related note a friend of mine bragged today that she made her first Facebook gift, a Nerf toy. She wondered out loud (only half joking) if she would get a cease and desist order from Hasbro, the makers of the Nerf toy for using their brand name without permission. My response was they would stupid if they do. Can’t beat the free publicity of Facebook. I realize you can’t let just anyone mess with your carefully crafted brand, but companies have to realize that there is a bright line between protecting your brand beyond reason and letting a fan champion your brand for free. Fact is, my friend is making a tribute to Nerf toys.

It’s time these companies got their heads out of the 20th century and started getting a clue about 21st century viral marketing on the internet. Maybe my friend David will write another open letter. Until then here’s a note to JC Penney: Dudes, you got the best publicity you could ever hope for. Enjoy the ride.

Quick correction: The December 2007 concert was Led Zeppelin's. Fixing that now.

I don't suppose that JC Penney is really, covertly, behind the ad? All the legal fussing and fuming is for the stockholders' benefit (don't want them thinking the brand's gone rogue), all the while every legal bombast brings the ad to people's attention even more.

Despite being pulled, one can quickly find it again in Google videos.

They couldn't be that clever, could they?

I actually think that's an entirely plausible scenario, but it's also possible it was rejected and leaked anyway. My feeling is that you can never underestimate the stupidity of a corporation. :)

Dr. Tantillo ('the marketing doctor') writes a branding blog in which he references this post and outlines what he thinks the best way is for JC Penny to harness the advertising value of this little scandal--while distancing themselves from what they don't want to be associated with their brand. Here's a link to the full post: