Editorial Labatt contest was a no-winner

Advertising has enough critics. They accuse it of being cynical, manipulative, disingenuous, unnecessary, and a candidate for much greater government regulation. So Labatt Breweries of Canada's recent folly in Newfoundland over its win-a-summer-job contest for Blue Star beer is nothing so...

Advertising has enough critics. They accuse it of being cynical, manipulative, disingenuous, unnecessary, and a candidate for much greater government regulation. So Labatt Breweries of Canada’s recent folly in Newfoundland over its win-a-summer-job contest for Blue Star beer is nothing so much as another first-class opportunity for critics to rail against the iniquity of it all.

Frankly, in the Labatt case, the critics have some justification for their complaints.

True, the job contest in question, part of a larger, successful advertising campaign that poked gentle fun at Newfoundlanders’ singular habits and accents, traded on their admirable ability to laugh at themselves. But there is nothing funny about unemployment or poverty, two conditions well known to generations of Newfoundlanders and far too many other Canadians as well. The government of Newfoundland realized this and was quick and blunt about shutting the job contest down, despite the predictable bleating that it was more concerned with playing down the province’s massive unemployment than sheltering Newfoundlanders from the contempt that is inherent in ridicule.

Labatt’s lapse in judgment over the job contest, and the absence of any public contrition because of it do not mean the brewery is a poor corporate citizen. Indeed, all the evidence suggests Labatt is a respected member of the business community. Still, perception, as pundits never fail to tell us, is all. And how, we wonder, will loyal Labatt customers in Newfoundland and elsewhere view the next lot of advertising from the brewery?

And how will those same customers, who as well as buying beer also buy sofas, pizza, running shoes, greeting cards, cat food and the hundreds of other items any household buys in the course of a year respond to advertising for those products? Cynicism, that corrosive willingness to believe the worst about anyone or anything, does not dig in overnight. Cynicism is incremental; it builds like the carbon on the spark plugs of an old car. Eventually, of course, those plugs stop firing. So, too, with consumers; they stop buying, as many a vice-president will attest.

Newfoundlander John Crosbie, now federal Fisheries minister, warned Canadians a few years ago they must suffer short-term pain for long-term gain. How tempting to match his words to the Labatt situation. Rightly, the brewery is suffering the short-term pain of embarrassment over the Blue Star contest. And the long-term gain? It seems unlikely Labatt or any other advertiser will exploit a debilitating social ill for gain for years to come.