Campaign date: July 2013

To celebrate their new high-end ProClinical A1500 electric toothbrush, Colgate ran a ‘brush swap’ event to help get people buzzing about the launch. Encouraging consumers to bring an old electric toothbrush to a stand at London Waterloo train station, they could then exchange it for the latest model.

The company had planned to be at the station for a week, but the promotion was shut down on safety grounds after only two days as huge, unmanaged crowds gathered and caused chaos.

Colgate chaos | Poor Promotions | Bad MarketingTwitter user Raymond Rafferty, via

It later emerged they had only budgeted to give away 750 of the new brushes over the week, but such was the promotion’s popularity that many hundreds of people were left disappointed. The Advertising Standards Authority received complaints – with one stating the advert was “misleading as a result of not being able to redeem the offer”.

In response, Colgate took the campaign online. After apologising for the fiasco, they promised to honour the giveaway for 7,000 consumers selected at random. Those who completed an online registration form had the chance of being one of the lucky winners – and didn’t have to send in an old brush.

If this was above and beyond the original plan for the promotion, you can expect the Finance Director was rather unhappy with the idea. It did little to swell the disappointment for some customers too – one took to Twitter to complain that he’d missed out on the promotion despite having taken the day off work to take advantage of it, and blamed the uncontrolled crowd.

In yet more controversy, the “Big Electric Brush Swap” was promoted through adverts in the Evening Standard, The Times and outdoors which overstated the value of the giveaway. The A1500 had a RRP of £169.99, yet was available in Boots stores – who had the brush exclusively – for £84.99, and even cheaper online.

The advert was banned by the ASA, who agreed that people attended the stand but were unable to take up the offer; that the ad breached the Code because it did not state the opening times for the stand; and that the claim “worth £169.99” was misleading.

To make matters worse, Marketing Week reported that rivals Phillips took full advantage of the blunder by creating their own “The best things in life aren’t free” ad for The Times and Evening Standard, and in a digital takeover of Waterloo station where Colgate’s misfortune played out.

Phillips’ PR company also contacted commuters who took to Twitter to express their disappointment at being unable to redeem Colgate’s promotion with the offer of a free Sonicare toothbrush.

What does good look like?

For anyone running a giveaway promotion, having a clear idea of what the takeup might be will help prevent disasters like this one. Use data from similar previous campaigns, or research others to try and get an informed idea.

Make sure your promotion is legal and that you’ll be able to deliver on any claims you make in your advertising of the promotion, so that you don’t get pulled up by the ASA.

Plan for different eventualities. What happens if your event is a damp squib, with little interest? Or you’ve underestimated your uptake? In this example, will you have one person dwarfed by a giant stand, or a mass of people to manage? How will you respond on social media or to press requests? How will you change the ‘mechanics’ of your giveaway?

As will probably become regular advice in articles in this category: consider liaising with the Institute of Promotional Marketing (IPM) – who offer their members legal advice – or a sales promotion risk management company.

Moving forward

What’s the moral of this Bad Marketing story for you? Was Colgate’s response the correct one, both financially and from a marketing perspective? What lesson will inform your own promotions?

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