Super Bowl Ad: HomeAway’s Biggest Problem, Ever

Clearly fake, but still kind of gross

I wrote this post for PR class. What primarily interested me about this topic was that HomeAway is based in my hometown, Austin. The corporate office is next to Whole Foods downtown.


HomeAway Vacation Rentals’ CEO Brian Sharples called the controversy generated by the company’s Super Bowl ad “by far the biggest thing that has gone wrong since the company started.”

 The ad (still viewable on the company’s YouTube page!), which cost the Austin-based company $3 million to run, showed a fake baby crashing into a glass wall.

Everyone can tell the baby wasn’t real thanks to its rubbery look and the spoken and printed words “test baby” that appear in the ad. And clearly, HomeAway doesn’t want to hurt babies. But for some people (for example: advocacy groups like the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation), the ad hit too close to home. Even hinting at the brain damage a baby would sustain after a similar fall was disturbing. 

Worst of all, HomeAway planned to create an interactive online campaign where people could use a picture of their face to recreate the smashed baby face.

The solution is clear!

 HomeAway had a crisis on their hands. Now, I’ll play armchair PR practitioner and evaluate their response.

On the Tuesday after the Super Bowl’s Sunday airing, HomeAway apologized for the ad, took it off their website and commissioned a revision of the ad showing the baby caught safely. Sharples, the CEO, wrote a personal 1,000 word apology explaining the reasoning  behind the ad (create buzz, drive traffic to the HomeAway website and stand out from other ads) and how he knows HomeAway erred in its creation.

Homeaway did well to respond so quickly. They acknowledged the protesters’ concerns. They explained their positioning (HomeAway is a family company) but didn’t stubbornly insist they were right. They removed the ad from their corporate website and canceled the interactive campaign.

The only thing I see wrong is that the ad is still viewable on HomeAway’s YouTube page (1.22 million views and counting). Since Sharples said the ad was inconsistent with the company’s ideals, I don’t see the function of keeping it up.

Overall though, Sharples’ apology (emphasis added) is really convincing.

We have invested countless hours and resources in this campaign – and our staff has worked tirelessly to create a truly ground-breaking interactive experience for our customers. And even though it has generated lackluster reviews (and I’m being generous here) by the press, the traffic generated to the HomeAway website has exceeded our highly successful Super Bowl ad from 2010. But none of this matters when it comes to doing the right thing – and we want to be respectful and responsible to those who are understandably upset about the ad. 

Thanks to the apology and the ad’s removal, I’d give HomeAway a nice passing score in managing this crisis.

It’s your turn, fellow experts. Do you think the ad was offensive? Why is the YouTube video still up?

Finally, if you want to learn more, you can check out the article from the Austin American Statesman that inspired this blog post.


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