I’ve been reading a lot about the Fyre Festival, and it seems like everyone is scrambling to dissect what went awry. Spoiler: In an extravagant effort to promote a booking app, Ja Rule and a 25-year-old entrepreneur punked thousands of millennials into hopping across the globe to attend a 40k-capacity music festival on a tropical island.
It was a bad idea from the start.
Shade aside, thanks to documentaries from Netflix and Hulu, we’re all well-acquainted with the epic fail that is Fyre Festival, so I won’t recap the narrative. What’s more interesting is the voluminous chatter the documentaries have provoked. Among these rich topics are the moral stakes and aftermath of dishonest marketing.
Is it ethical to make a product seem quality when it’s not?
Here’s the promotional video that went viral, and ultimately, along with influencer support, sold the festival:
A Doomed Promotion from the Get-Go
Let’s start with the basics. Marketing 101.
What does marketing ultimately do? It aims to sell something.
How? Marketers identify an audience-specific need. Then they deliver messaging that presents a solution to the need via a product, service or experience.
No matter how ambitious the marketing efforts, when a product fails to live up to its message, it doesn’t last. It either gets beaten by competitors or customers eventually get wise, which, after a quick trip to the Bahamas and a few cold cheese sandwiches, is exactly what happened with the Fyre Festival.
Who’s Responsible for a Bad Investment?
On the other side of the marketing coin is the consumer. It seems the Fyre Fest hype was so convincing that it resulted in little to no consumer checks and balances. Apparently, all it took was a few celebrity Instagram posts of vague orange blocks to convince folks to drop $5k-$12k on the promise of luxurious, substance-infused dub music on the beach. Is that the marketer’s fault, or does the consumer bear at least some responsibility for making such a naïve, misguided investment?
I’m not claiming the Fyre Festival messaging wasn’t misleading—obviously the event, at every stage of production, was deeply flawed. But was the marketing predatory? I don’t know… If Kendall Jenner posts a selfie drinking a $30 bottle of green tea, and you go out and buy that tea, who’s at fault? Yes, Jenner is influencing you unabashedly. But you’re ultimately the person who goes out and pays 30x market value for tea. And it turns out the tea is nasty.
In the end, there is no defense for Fyre Festival. All companies have a responsibility to put customers’ experience, satisfaction and safety first and foremost. While I believe the Fyre attendees share some of the blame, no one can dispute that the blame ultimately falls on leadership, as it always does. Organizers of the Fyre Festival face a $100-million class-action lawsuit alleging fraud and breach of contract. Festival organizer Billy McFarland has been sentenced to six years in prison and three years on probation. He must also pay restitution of $26 million.
In the end, inaccurate messaging is a negligent marketing move because it’s a death sentence for your business. Inaccurate messaging will never turn a long-term profit. If you fool your consumers, they will match you—punch for punch—until your reputation falls.
How to Prevent a “Fyre Festival Fiasco”
Although fails on the scale of Fyre are rare (and almost impressive), even small marketing missteps can cost you.
If you’re working with a marketing agency, regular temperature checks will help ensure messaging is accurate and tailored to your target audience.
Note: if your agency exclaims “Yes!” to your every request—without asking questions or offering suggestions—that’s a red flag. That indicates they don’t care about the well-being of your customers, or worse—they don’t know anything about them. And, if you nod along, you are partially to blame.
If you want to learn more about spotting red flags with your marketing partner, check out our white paper, Why the Yes Man Agency is Bad News for You.