Irate sports fans hijack UPS company blog

Click here if you can’t see the video of the controversial UPS ad.

I’m sort of a blog geek.

I love looking at company blogs and see their progress … or lack of it … over time. One of the blogs that has been making some nice progress is UPS, but I noticed something unusual the other day. This is a company that is still learning how to move their content and they don’t get many tweets or shares … maybe 4-5 per day.

Then I noticed one blog post about a basketball game received 482 shares and 181 comments.  What???

Advertising miscue?

The sensation started a few weeks ago when UPS ran a TV advertisement concurrent with the NCAA basketball tournament that tried to connect a pass that won “the greatest game” to their theme of logistical excellence.

In the 1992 game, an underdog UK team known as “The Unforgettables” had pulled ahead by one point in the closing seconds of overtime against Duke, the defending national champion.

With 2.1 seconds left, Duke player Grant Hill threw the ball nearly the length of the court to Christian Laettner, who turned and made the winning shot with no time remaining in the game.

“Everybody remembers the shot. But what about the pass? No pass, no shot,” the narrator says. “You need a special player to get the ball exactly where it needs to be, exactly when it needs to be there.”

An unexpected reaction

Kentucky fans exploded over the fact that the most heart-breaking loss in the history of their sports program was now played over and over again as an ad on behalf of a shipping company. To add insult to injury, UPS has major facilities in Kentucky.

A common tactic is for companies to address controversies and problems through their blog, in fact it is a very important role for company blogs. In this case UPS tried to soothe savage Kentucky fans by creating a post by an actual Kentucky graduate that explained the thinking behind the ad:

 I know our new ads will anger some UK fans, but if you truly look at that game with an objective eye, it’s hard to think of a better example of what determined people working together toward a common goal can accomplish – and that’s what UPS is all about.

No one should think that UPS has some kind of anti-UK bias. On the contrary, UPS loves Kentucky. We love it so much we established our primary air hub in the commonwealth, which has driven the creation of 33,000 jobs with $300 million in annual payroll.

But the strategy back-fired.

By creating this blog post, UPS just provided a forum for their detractors and inflamed irate fans who stormed the comment section with messages like this:

Here’s an idea for your next UPS ad. How about you detail the “logistics” of a major company receiving huge tax breaks from a state as an incentive to move there. Then you could show the “teamwork” required to make an ad highlighting the most heartbreaking moment in that state’s sports history. Sounds like another winner.

It’s bad you wrote this post trying to justify the ad, but to do so in such a condescending manner explaining to everyone how great the play was makes it even worse.

Many Kentucky customers vowed to never use UPS again. Even a state senator weighed in, asking UPS to pull the ad.

It’s a tough situation. Before UPS created the commercial, they actually got the blessing of the university. And even as a die-hard college sports fan, I’m not sure I could have predicted a reaction like this when a company is touting your team as a participant in the greatest game ever.

An interesting case study. A celebration of a great sporting event, the NCAA basketball finals, has turned into a PR nightmare for UPS. What would you have done differently?

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  • To call this a “PR nightmare” is a bit of an overstatement. Who is really angry here? UK fans. How many of those are there? In the grand scheme of things, they constitute a vast minority of UPS’s customers. To be frank, there are a lot of people who live in Kentucky who don’t care for UK at all (hello, Louisville folks). 

    So let’s all step back from the brink and calm down. UPS doesn’t need to do any damage control. If they do, they’ve literally wasted money…money that could be spent in better ways. Not every PR issue has to be treated like DEFCON 1. We overblow things like this and I’m beginning to wonder who benefits in the long run.

  • Mark,

    Really good post. I had heard the fuss about the ad but didn’t realize the extent of the blunder so thanks for providing the extra background. 

    I do feel for UPS since what they were trying to do was attach their brand to the positive excitement of March Madness which by itself was not a bad idea. My guess is that their marketing department may have had some sports fans but no die-hards that would brought up the side of the story from the losers’ perspective.

    Losing a big game is never fun. Losing a big game on a last second play and then have to re-live that play over and over again every March for 20yrs sounds like a form of torture. 

    The PR response to the complaints tells me that UPS still don’t understand the Kentucky fan’s perspective or what the fuss is all about. Instead of helping to calm the situation, they pored gas on the fire.

    A good reminder to think through how your story may be interpreted by others before telling it.  

    Thanks again for sharing,


  • I agree with both Joshua and Chris. I am not a basketball fan. I do not follow any team in any sport (with the exception of MLB on warm summer nights). I don’t understand most sports analogies, and the use of sports to make a point usually just annoys me. I had not seen the UPS commercial and I do not read their blog. I don’t really care what they did, as this will not affect ME and my likelihood of sending my next package by UPS versus their nearest competitor. Like Chris, I suspect that this PR issue is just a ripple in the pond.

    However, I do think it is a lesson that needs to be heeded. What if the segment that was used had shown some major loss of team USA in an Olympics game or event? What if the company was a local business or service, wholly situation in Kentucky? 

    These types of local reactions can be incredibly important, and may lead to death by social media for some local or regional companies. I could easily envision the outrage I would cause if I used a clip of EITHER a Virginia Tech OR a UVA loss in a message about the importance of being a team player in medicine. 

    So, I think its great that you shared your perspectives on this, even if it is UNLIKELY to bring down the company. The lessons are still there for all of us. “Look both ways before you cross the street”. We learned it from our parents, we need to remember it always in any marketing campaign. We are never far from being taken down at the curb by a speeding vehicle.

  • Tevfik Bulent Ongun

    Hi Mark,
    Thank you for this post.
    @chris, sorry but i dont agree with you. This is some kind of a PR nightmare. Company could handle it better.. at least on their blog post.


  • I’m okay to be wrong on this, but I also appreciate a compelling argument as to why I am wrong. We want companies to be open and transparent, to be human. But we also want companies to please every single customer. So what about Duke fans? Or people who don’t like University of Kentucky? I imagine they enjoyed the ad. And there’s nothing in that blogpost from UPS that strikes me as belligerent toward any customers. Again, I stand by my argument that we are quickly becoming an overly impatient consumer culture. Sure some businesses deserve customer ire for their recklessness (Bank of America, Lehman Bros come to mind). But getting upset over a commercial? Can a company do anything right these days?

  • This is a tough one, I was actually confused at what could possibly be controversial after watching the ad. I didn’t see any massive missteps until reading their response to the outrage – which was essentially a well-dressed argument against it all (vs. an honest expression of empathy). 

    Thanks for sharing Mark – very interesting! 

  • Chris S. Cornell

    Thank you, Chris, for bringing a small dose of sanity to this “crisis”. We social media folk are some of the most melodramatic people I know.

  • Chris S. Cornell

    Brilliant commercial. 
    And that was one of the most amazing endings to a game in NCAA history.
    I’d like to see evidence that the commercial or the UPS response has caused a shred of damage to the UPS brand.
    I’ll bet if they had the chance to do it again, they’d do it — only they’d probably do a larger ad buy.

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  • My first reaction? This type of PR issue could happen to any of us at any time. Like other readers, when I watched the commercial, I thought it was brilliant. What a great way to tie your business into March Madness and what an amazingly visual way to show how important a timely delivery is! They obviously knew ahead of time that it could anger some UK fans. That’s why they got the green light from the university ahead of time. Still, nobody could predict this type of backlash.

    I sort of feel bad for UPS right now. I think they had good intentions and did everything they could to cover their bases before going live with the ad. I guess this will showcase my lack of sports knowledge, but I find it hard to believe that people are in THIS much of an uproar about a tv commercial from a company that brought 30k+ new jobs to their state. Have a little perspective people!

  • Quite interesting! There have been many recent incidents such as this happening to companies lately (Ragu, Susan G Komen Foundation, etc) and this one is honestly the first where I can say I would not have seen that coming. With the others, I felt as if the company had not considered how their ad/position/etc could be misconstrued, they were not prepared for what could easily have occurred. With this one, UPS was probably a bit blindsided. Even after reading “Click here if you can’t see the video of the controversial UPS ad.” and watching the video, I was still a bit dumbfounded on why it was controversial.

    Not sure what they could have done here… is it going to become that companies are scared to take any creative risk for fear of fallout?

  • I have to say I’m with Chris on this one. Maybe some will boycott UPS, but I doubt it will be significant enough to even be a drop in the UPS bucket. The angry fan on the UPS blog talks about the most heartbreaking moment in the state’s history. But it’s not heartbreaking to everyone in the state. But you know what would be heartbreaking to the state? Not having those 33,000 jobs and $300 million in payroll. And, as long as UPS is cheaper/faster/better and makes sense for business, I doubt they’ll see much of a decline in business over a commercial.

  • If you would allow me to interject my two cents…

    While I am not a die-hard UK fan, I do root for almost everybody who plays against Duke (the only exception is when they play UNC whom I also dislike, so I go outside and play with a wooden hoop and stick), I do understand fandom pretty well and this reaction is not surprising at all.

    I will say, however, for UPS to take the first step and stand their ground in a respectful manner was a good decision although, at first glance, it may look like it has backfired. Often, the loudest voice is that of the detractors; the angry voice and while many college fans take their fandom very seriously, the message of the ad does ring true.

    Additionally, by getting the “blessing” of The University of Kentucky to run the ad (a fact that they probably should have communicated right away), shows a level of respect and caring for the university that UK fans will begin to realize once they get past the emotion of remembering that one moment in time. If UPS can reach out to the Wildcats and get them to communicate to their fans that they OK’d it, that would help UPS too. Wildcat fans are not going to end their alliances or transfer them elsewhere if UofK backs UPS on this one.

    I’m sure this study is far from over and if you are one who thinks UPS should have simply said nothing, sit back and think about how out of control things could have been if that were the case. Yes, some are angry about the ad, but you will never be able to please everyone. Many times, if you stand your ground your support system, your de facto ambassadors, will begin to appear and plead your case for you. Let’s see how this all turns out.

  • I honestly think this is a great ad. I think most people remember that shot and it illustrates their point well. It also ties well into the NCAA tournament fever. I don’t know that I would have predicted this response.

    As far as the outrage, I think it’s a bit overplayed. I totally get it though. As a Missouri fan, we continue to see replays of the infamous 1995 NCAA game when UCLA dribbled down the court with less than five seconds to win the game by one point: Oh, and yes UCLA went on to win the national championship.

    I think that clip gets shown EVERY time Missouri plays in the tournament. And yes, it still stings 17 years later.  As much as I hated that moment, I can still admit it was a great play by UCLA. But, I digress.
    In reading the comments on that blog post, it seems the reaction is really mixed. While there are definitely angry fans, there are a lot of people weighing in to tell people to “get over it” and “it’s just basketball.” 

    I think what could have used some work was the blog post. It was going along great until they started throwing in all the things they do for Kentucky. It sounded like a politician’s answer. That’s what seemed to really irk people, even though it makes excellent points. I suppose sometimes you just have to realize you can’t please everyone. 

  • Excellent perspective Josh. The faux response from the Kentucky blogger made things worse! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • A fair perspectve and thank you SO MUCH for adding the dissenting view Chris. There is more to the story of course. This story was on the front page of both the Lousiville and Lexington newspapers.  So if you are UPS, do you wait to see if it tips and goes national or do you do nothing? At what point is it a “crisis” and if you are UPS do you treat it that way at ther first kindling or after the fans (literally and figuratively) have been flamed?  Great addition to the discussion my friend.

  • WhinyBigBlue

    Do nothing differently. UK fans are so whiny. It’s embarrassing. 

  • The main reason I highlighted this is because I think it is a perfect extension of the post I did last week on “negativity bias.” It does not take many people to create a firestorm. I’m sure many non-sports fans are mystified by the issue. In fact, I AM a sports fan amd confused by the issue : )  Thanks so much for the great comment!

  • I share your sentiments Chris. The world eems to be one big landmine for businesses trying to do anything inventive.

  • Many thanks for commenting today Garrett!

  • We’ll probably never see those numbers, Chris but it would be interesting, wouldn’t it?

  • Like you, I was mystified by this Tara. I went to West Virginia University and am a die-hard fan of all their sports teams. A couple of years ago, we lost to our arch-rival Pitt (an unranked team) to ruin our chances at a national football championship. Yes, it was heaertbreaking, but if I saw it referred to as the greatest game ever played (which it WASN’T) I would feel proud that our boys were on the field that day. So I’m not connecting with the detractors and would not have predicted it if I had been UPS.

  • “Yes.” I think that is the answer, unfortunately. So many risks. Nice to see you back in the comment section my dear!

  • Wow, powerful comment Jen. Love that perspective. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Thanks for sharing your wisdome today Gary.  Superb comment!

  • Very keen observation Laura. I think that is an important lesson we can take out of this. A very delicate balance indeed!

  •  I guess it’s just a perfect example of not being able to please everybody! 🙂 Great post though. It’s had my brain mulling over this all morning!

  • In that case … mission accomplished! : )

  • I live in Kentucky, grew up in Kentucky and am the son of two University of Kentucky graduates. Kentucky basketball fans throwing a fit over this commercial may well have hijacked UPS’s blog, but I can assure you they won’t hijack much more. We lovingly refer to them as “K-Tards” here because they’re irrational, incensed over the slightest provocation and (frankly) embarrassing to many of us in the Commonwealth. The play happened 20 years ago. For them to be upset about its use in a commercial is ridiculous. 

    The only point they might have is that UPS does run a large portion of its U.S. logistics through Louisville. But then again … it’s in Louisville. 

    If the state legislators or citizens of the Commonwealth want to spend their money with someone else, that says much more about them than it does about UPS. The ad is a good one, points out a brand promise they deliver on and while it does bring up negative memories for UK fans, it’s probably the first in a series of ads (potentially) that highlight great sports plays as logistical shining examples.

    UK fans are best if ignored. Trust me. I do it all the time.  

  • Hmmm, 33k people employed by UPS and $300 million in salaries (and untold tax dollars) going into the economy there and they are more worried about the basketball team twenty years ago being dissed? Not very smart in Kentucky are they? Indictment of the University? Maybe. Indicative of inbreeding? Certainly.

  • Grateful for the “insider comment” Jason. You and I have our scars as WVU fans and I can’t imagine folks reacting like this if we were part of the “greatest game ever” even if we lost it. : ) 

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  • Phyllis Nichols

     Somehow I missed this so I’m glad you wrote about it.  I think UPS is kind of crazy like a fox here.  I’m a huge sports fan and love college sports in particular.  Fans get crazy and I understand the UK sentiment to some extent.  I think the best thing UPS could do now is respond back and ask UK fans to post links to UK examples of “people working together towards a common goal”… if they were motivated to keep this dialogue going they could have people vote – get fans of other schools to chime in – all kinds of things.  The good news is that people are at least looking at their blog now right? 

  • Christian Laettner isn’t allowed in this state, and I would invite him to my house for a cup of tea, but he couldn’t get within 150 miles without being captured and tortured.

    I wish I could think of some sports moments to compare it to, but there truly aren’t any. To understand this reaction you have to know the whole story ( a story that I will do my best to relate lol). It’s a long story that starts when basketball was invented by some doctor with peach baskets, and then became a mountain tradition when Adolph Rupp won a few national titles, but it really picked up in the late 80s when UK was placed on probation for something or another. They had an underdog team the year that this game took place because of sanctions, so needless to say an above average number of fans (even for Kentucky basketball, which is the equivalent of University of Michigan Football, Whatever Soccer team starts all those riots in Brazil, or the New York Yankees) were watching that game because it was a team of misfits. Laettner had a perfect game (8 for 8 if I remember correctly), and went on to suck it up as a professional.

    So UK Basketball is an institution here. It’s one of those things that isn’t logical or practical, but it’s something you won’t deny. UPS is known for delivering packages of illegal prescription medications and wearing goofy brown shorts around here, so they were starting on shaky ground in the first place.

    They messed up bad. For making that ad? No, for letting someone who wasn’t qualified, someone who knows nothing about sports do it. Or even worse, a Dukie who knows exactly how to rub salt in old wounds. Either way, the reply is the icing on the cake, and UPS can’t fix that, they can just downplay it. In a few weeks when they’re hanging the 2012 championship banner in Rupp, you can bet your ass that the big brown won’t be delivering championship t-shirts across the country. They don’t care…. except their  International hub IS IN KENTUCKY, but more specifically Louisville…. which could in 100 ways make Laettner a distant memory next week, and could be UPS’ way out (they definately don’t have a way out as long as it’s March and UK is still has games to play. It’s fever pitch time here).

    So even though I haven’t seen the commercial and have no desire to see it… or go ape shit on UPS’ Facebook page, all I need to know is that they put that clip in a commercial… in March…. when UK has the top team in the nation…. and then made it worse with an ignorant reply to see that they lack the knowledge to tread that ground. And everyone visiting Mark’s blog use this as a lesson. This could be you or your campaign just as easy. Advertising isn’t all about Facebook, you really have to know what you’re doing. An ad for Bud Light doesn’t fit in a Lifetime movie about how a drunk driver ruined a young family’s life one night, and you never bring up that game in Kentucky. Sure they don’t seem related (and the weight of the latter seems incredulous when paired that way) but as you can see the cost of having your company’s name on either could be pretty consequential. Go Big Blue 😉

  • Mark Dickens

    Mark, as the author of the blog post in question, I would like to weigh into the discussion. While I wasn’t directly involved in the development of the commercials, I know a considerable amount of thought and consideration went into them, including some lengthly discussions about how some UK fans would react.

    As I mentioned in my post, I’m a Kentucky native and have been a UK Wildcat fan since Joe B. Hall was coaching the men’s basketball team. And while the ’92 Duke-UK game was a heartbreaking disappointment, I can still appreciate it for what it is – one of the greatest displays of teamwork (by both teams) in the history of the game.

    So it was with this in mind that UPS’s advertising agency created the spots currently running during the tournament. Obviously, some UK fans are still upset about the outcome of that game, even though it took place two decades ago. But by and large, the majority of people who have seen the commercials – including many Big Blue fans – understand the context. To that point, we’re hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence that the commercials are helping people better understand what UPS is capable of doing for our customers, which from an advertising perspective is no small feat.

    The UPS blog, upside, was created to allow for open, honest exchanges between our company and the public. Unlike some other corporate blogs, we moderate the comments only to the extent necessary to ensure people play by the rules – no profanity or off-color remarks, etc. So if someone doesn’t agree with the writer’s position, that’s fine.

    People who are passionate about an issue (or team) are always going to be more vocal than people who don’t share the same commitment and the Duke-UK story is no different. We respect everyone’s opinion and we’re not afraid to let the conversation evolve, even if that means allowing our detractors to vent. At the end of the day, UPS will be fine and so will everyone else who has been a part of the discussion.

  • Great post Mark! We were talking about this in the office a week or two ago. Thanks for the update. Casey – Pikeville, KY

  • You’re most welcome. You;re in Falls country! : ) 

  • I really appreciate the fact that you weighed in here Mark but this frankly sounds like another UPS press release.  Respectfully, that approach didn’t work on your blog. Why would it work here?  

    It was a great ad. You guys learned some lessons. And if you read through the comments, people came to your defense, which is pretty cool. No need for corporate speak, friend. 

  • I don’t know.  One rule I learned in PR is “never kick a crusted turd.”  I think it’s time to leave the “engagement” on this one alone! : )   But perhaps I’m wrong and I frequently am!

  • I’m glad a Big Blue fan weighed in. Much appreciated Adam! 

  • I found this whole thing really interesting. Companies are certainly afraid of becoming the next “United Breaks Guitars” youtube video with millions of views and so they understandably try to put out fires before they become uncontrollable. But how do you tell whether a few negative comments about an ad or campaign will turn into a full blown PR nightmare? It’s really tough… 

    I guess their response to the negative criticism they were getting on their blog was not well thought out. Maybe if they had kept it simple, with something like “We are truly sorry our recent ad showing the ’92 basketball game upset the loyal UK fans. It was never our intent, and for that we apologize”. That’s it. Keep it short, don’t try to explain the reasoning, don’t try to tell them you are the largest employer, etc… keep it short and simple and be humble. If that doesn’t calm people down, then think of another strategy. Oh, and don’t have the intern do the post, get your VP Marketing or someone to show the company is taking this seriously.

    Nice discussion!

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