Remember Life Savers soda, a misguided 1980s idea from the marketers of Life Savers hard candies, the sweet-treat so named because they resemble mini life preservers? You don't? Well, neither do I. But Google "worst branding flops" and it shows up again and again.
I can imagine the shocked brain trust behind Life Savers soda sitting around a conference room table flabbergasted that it's bright idea was utterly rejected by consumers who -- surprise! -- equated it with drinking too-sweet liquid candy. What went so horribly wrong in a nation where half of all consumers guzzle at least one sugary drink a day?
Maybe the answer is negative linkage. Of which here's another example: It appears we may soon get to add two-year-old Al Jazeera America (AJA) to the list of noted branding miscalculations.
As GetReligion readers may know, the Qatar government-funded television network is drowning in management and staff problems, much of them self-inflicted. Then there's the network's minuscule viewership and the more than passing criticism of the entire Al Jazeera enterprise (by which I mean AJA, the older Al Jazeera English, AJE, and the parent Al Jazeera Arabic channel) as being anti-West and pro-Sunni Islamist.
(For the record, I'm a very spotty viewer of AJA's and AJE's online feeds but a somewhat more frequent reader of their Web articles. I've not watched AJA's TV product, which is unavailable on my local cable system.)
I'm not at all surprised by AJA's problems, particularly given the American public's general lack of interest in international news coupled with its post 9/11 suspicion of all things Arab and Muslim, which has made it exceeding difficult for AJA to gain U.S. broadcast outlets and, therefore, exposure to potential viewers.
Let's face it. Arabs and Muslims generally have a pretty big p.r. problem right now. This recent Los Angeles Times piece notes that even when leading American Arab and Muslim community organizations go out of their way to condemn Islamic terrorism they feel unheard by the media and unduly stigmatized by the larger American community.
Of course stories such as this one from National Review on an internal Al Jazeera reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre do not help AJA gain traction. This 2013 story from the San Francisco Chronicle's Web platform anticipated AJA's formidable struggle to gain U.S. media market acceptance.
But I don't think it took genius to conclude that being associated in the public mind with acting as Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece, even if only via your parent company, made AJA a real long shot investment. Not until the Islamic State came along was there a worse brand to be associated with than Al Qaeda, at least as far as Americans were concerned.
Yet someone -- namely the all-powerful and petrochemical mega-rich Qatari royal family, led by a man hungry for a major global media platform to spread his influence, and with the cash to burn -- thought it a good idea. Remind me, what's the meaning of schadenfreude?
However, this does not mean AJA's failing is, in my book, a good thing for journalists and the news consuming public. I might disagree with much of the Al Jazeera worldview, but I also think the more alternative views we're exposed to, the better informed we can be. Foreign-controlled news reports are one such alternative view, even when delivered by American and other Western journalists, a fixture of both AJA and AJE.
In a world as complex as ours, you simply cannot understand the fullness of the many competing views out there if you solely watch, listen to or read American news outlets. And no, switching between Fox, CNN and MSNBC does not cover all the bases.
Robert D. Kaplan has long been one of my favorite writers focused on foreign affairs. In 2009, he wrote a piece for The Atlantic on why he so valued AJE (which, as you would expect, is somewhat more internationally oriented than AJA but is still close enough in style and content to be a fair comparison here).
"Al Jazeera ... is what the internationally minded elite class really yearns for: a visually stunning, deeply reported description of developments in dozens upon dozens of countries simultaneously," he wrote. " ... Outlets such as CNN and the BBC don’t cover foreign news so much as they cover the foreign extensions of Washington’s or London’s collective obsessions." Click here for his full essay, which I find fault with only that I think Kaplan should have made clear that the Al Jazeera constellation strongly reflects the political whims of the current emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamin Bin Hamad Al-Thani, which narrows Al Jazeera's value in a fashion similar to his criticism of CNN and the BBC.
But while the emir, an Arabic title that may be translated as ruler or commander, may control editorial content far more heavy-handedly than do private sector Western network chiefs, that does not diminish the need for news sources that provide non-American perspectives, including the Al Jazeera brand.
Even news outlets that are totally controlled by governments, whether the government is aligned or not with our personal or national interests, add to the sum of knowledge needed to navigate the world's many potential pitfalls.
At the very least, foreign government news sources can help us understand some despot's latest delusion. And that's not nothing in a dangerous world. It's sort of like religion journalists making a point of regularly keeping up with, say, National Catholic Reporter and L'Osservatore Romano. (Note to readers: I am not slyly insinuating that the pope is a despot; just contrasting a liberal, independent domestic paper with a foreign, generally conservative, government-owned -- the Vatican -- publication.)