Earlier this week, Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, launched a diatribe at SpongeBob SquarePants. The lovable sponge, along with a cast of other children’s characters, appeared in a video remake of the disco hit “We Are Family,” which Dobson alleges is trying to insidiously promote gay tolerance. The video’s creators say it’s meant to carry a message of multi-culturalism and racial tolerance and does not have anything to do with sexual proclivity.
I’m not going to get into the political, social or moral debate at all, because that doesn’t have anything to do with marketing. What I am going to tell you–and this isn’t a suggestion, but a straight up marketing imperative–is don’t ever, ever, ever get in a fight with a fictional characacter. I don’t care if it’s the protagonist in a classic novel, a lead figure in a play, a cartoon animal, a comedic role in a modern sitcom or the animated spokes-thing for a major brand of pet-food. It’s a lose-lose-lose proposition for you from a PR standpoint. Why? Four main reasons.
1. You look foolish.
You’re arguing about (and potentially with) something that doesn’t exist. That’s bad enough in the business and political world, but even worse in the world of faith. If you think that a particular type of entertainment or show is problematic, say so simply and back it up scripturally. You don’t need to poke fun or villify the authors or creators of the work. All that will do is turn their fans into enemies. And fans of creative work are some of the worst enemies you can have from a PR perspective.
2. You’re on their turf.
Created characters actually live in the world of information. That’s all they are–content. You have to eat, sleep, walk the dog, sit in traffic, etc. You have friends whose opinions matter to you. You have family. They do not. They are not real. They can defy the laws of space and time. Dead presidents can speak on their behalf. They can appear on 20 different shows at the same time. It’s like trying to outswim Flipper. Bad idea.
3. Reason isn’t reasonable.
The fans of fictional characters love them because they aren’t real. Serious, rational arguments about their “faults” don’t count.
4. They bite.
It’s one thing to get taken down a peg by a real-life antagonist; someone with an argument better than yours or a competing organization that simply does a better job at what you’re trying to do. It’s another thing entirely for a fictional character to take you out back and spank you like a redheadded stepchild. Murphy Brown did it to Dan Quayle. Not pretty.
Again… if you have a problem with the message being delivered by a character, show, medium or cultural sector, you should not hesitate from speaking. But to single out one particular character for public chastisement, ridicule or attention is asking for trouble from a marketing and PR stance.