walleThey had the world’s ugliest dog competition last week in Petaluma, California, and there is a new winner. The winning pooch was Walle (pictured left), a 4-year-old beagle, boxer and basset hound mix. What do ugly dogs have to do with your business? Read on.

As you look at this little dog, perhaps you’re struck by the fact that Walle is not ugly but, in fact, he is downright adorable. Our sentiments exactly. In fact, none of the nominees in this contest qualify as the “ugliest dog.” They’re all cute as cupcakes.

So what gives here? Why stage a dumb contest like this?

Even the most dim-witted among us know that there are no ugly dogs or babies. They’re all cute, particularly in the eyes of their families. You have to ask the civic boosters in Petaluma, but something tells me it has to do with garnering publicity – any kind of publicity. Maybe they were trying to enhance the town’s recognition by staging a pet contest in Petaluma?

At Prejean Creative, we advise clients on public relations, promotional and social network strategies every day. We have seasoned professionals who understand how to present an issue, product or service in the best possible light, because your grandmother was right, you really don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

Some misguided folks think that any kind of publicity is good publicity. Let us be the first to dissuade you of this opinion. Making fun of a perfectly adorable dog like Walle will not make people want to move their factory to your town, or stop in to have a soft drink in your convenience store as they speed up or down the freeway. It makes them think: “My, those people in the ugly dog contest town are mean. Let’s not stop here, Fred. Let’s go somewhere else.”

Gumbo, fajitas, crawfish, chili, rattlesnake and every other kind of “cook-off” are great tourism promotions to encourage people to stop and visit. Music fests and art festivals are also tried-and-true ways to get folks to come to your town and drop some money in the local economy. However, making fun of animals is not a good strategy for tourism development.

This is also a cautionary tale for the use of humor in promotional activities and advertising. When humor works, it can be amazingly effective and memorable.  However, when it doesn’t, it can come across as boorish and crude.

Most humor will offend someone. That’s the nature of humor. However, some humor is mean-spirited – such as choosing the ugliest puppy – and this is counter-productive to the goals of promotion.

The best advice is to be very careful when trying to use humor in promotion. Using racial stereotypes, gender stereotypes, jokes about physical or mental infirmities or other mean-spirited words or phrases should never be used no matter how hip you think your audience is. Even off-handed comments that fall into this category are off-limits for celebrities, people in the public eye, organizations or communities. And when they happen, the worst thing that can be done is to try and avoid responsibility for these comments.

Be very, very careful when you plan your next promotion, press release, social network post or ad campaign. In the wired world in which we live, the unintended consequences of something that seemed funny and compelling at the time can do more damage than good.