5 June 2012 Jay Shepherd

Marketing lessons from the Romney iPhone gaffe

Twenty years ago, Vice President Dan Quayle made headlines for correcting a schoolboy’s spelling of the word “potato.” The boy had of course correctly spelled it, but Quayle told him that he had forgotten the silent e at the end of the word. Pundits and late-night talk-show hosts excoriated him mercilessly. It was, to say the least, an embarrassing gaffe. No one really believes that this meant that Quayle was uneducated or unintelligent; more likely, he suffered a momentary brain-lock and flubbed the word. (Although he later blamed a cue card that the school had given him.)

Now the Mitt Romney presidential campaign has suffered a similar bout of spelling ineptitude. The campaign released an Instagram-like app for the iPhone that allowed users to share photos emblazoned with pro-Romney slogans. At first glance, it seemed to be a pretty cutting-edge effort for a campaign that has long struggled to connect with voters. What they hoped to accomplish by enabling supporters to create digital postcards is unclear. (Seriously: who’s going to send them to people?) But in the end, the app made news for a completely unintended reason.

One of the templates that users of the app could choose was a small graphic of the lower 48 states with the caption “A Better America.” Only problem is, they managed to misspell the name of our country. Instead of “America,” the caption said “Amercia.” Which sounds vaguely like a medical diagnosis. (“I thought I contracted nasal amercia, but my doctor said it was only allergies.”)

A Better Amercia

from @DaveStroup

Not surprisingly, this mistake was caught quickly and went viral, with thousands of tweets poking fun at the mistake. Inexplicably, the app was still available in Apple’s App Store the day after the typo had gone viral. (It was fixed soon after.)

In one way, this mistake wasn’t as bad as the one Quayle made, because here the candidate himself didn’t actually make the error. (Presumably — Romney doesn’t seem the coding type.) But in some ways, this mistake is actually worse. People can forgive a momentary brain lapse like Quayle’s. But this was something else.

In all likelihood, the programmer who created the app knew how to spell America. It was very likely a typo: the digital equivalent of Quayle’s “potatoe.” Everyone makes typos. As a writer, I do it all the time. When writing the 90,000 words in my book, I probably made hundreds of typos. But the difference is that I reread every one of those words at least four times. And at least five other people reviewed my work as well. The reason for this is that I care about making mistakes and I try to pay attention to detail. And so do the people at Apress who published my book.

The programmer who created the app should have reread his work. The campaign official to whom he reported certainly should have checked the 10 or 12 templates in the app and made sure that there weren’t any mistakes. Given the size and import of the national campaign, there were probably several other officials whose approval was needed before releasing the app. In fact, it’s not beyond reason to expect that the candidate himself would at least take a look at it before it hits the App Store. The mistake was so glaring, anyone should’ve caught it.

But they didn’t. Since no one believes that the intelligent people who work at the Romney campaign actually have difficulty spelling the word “America,” this can only mean one thing:

They didn’t care enough to check.

And yes, we can all agree that in the scheme of things, this is a very minor mistake. But it’s a very visible one. And it sends the wrong message to the public.

It’s also not the first gaffe for the campaign. There was the time when Romney appeared in a commercial touting the value of American-made cars while driving in a Chrysler 300 that was actually manufactured in Canada. Or the time a senior aide compared the political map to an Etch A Sketch. Or the time that Mitt Romney named his son “Tagg.” (Just kidding.)

To be fair, I’m sure that the people involved in the campaign care very much. Many of them have put their lives on hold while they work tirelessly to get Romney elected. But the message they’re sending is that they don’t care.

Back when I had my law firm, I frequently received letters from law students and lawyers seeking employment. I was always amazed at the number of times that my name would be misspelled. I mean, “Shepherd” is a common English noun. It means, literally, “someone who herds sheep” (or “shep,” which isn’t a real thing.) Of all the variants of the name Shepherd in the United States, my spelling — the correct spelling, ahem — is the most common. But for some reason, people insist on spelling it with an a. (Actually I know the reason: it’s because astronaut Alan Shepard and his family didn’t know how to spell their name. Stupid astronaut. Nobody “ards” sheep. Or shep.) Other people double the p or lose the h. Many times, I’ve had people misspell my name as I was spelling it to them aloud. When I bought my first house, my name was spelled three different ways in the purchase-and-sale agreement. And none of them was correct. (Stupid lawyers.)

So whenever I received a job application from someone who hadn’t bothered to check the spelling of my name, I immediately threw it in the wastebasket. It’s possible that some of those candidates would have been exceptional lawyers. We’ll never know. Because they didn’t show that they cared.

The way I see it, being a lawyer is a job that takes attention to detail. (Just as being the president does.) If someone couldn’t demonstrate that attention to detail when they were trying to get the job, what would make me think that they would later show that attention after they got the job? Was I being too tough? Maybe a little overly sensitive? It’s certainly possible. But did they show that they cared? No, they did not.

In business, you often have opportunities to show that you pay attention to things and that you care about the work that you do. Nobody’s perfect and everybody makes mistakes. But if you want people to trust you — to believe that you care — you will make every effort to catch those mistakes before they cause harm.

Should a typo in a silly iPhone app have any effect on the outcome of the presidential election? Of course not. But when we evaluate people, we look at signs. And this is an unfortunate sign that the Romney campaign just doesn’t quite care enough.

Check your work. Show you care.

A political note: some people might read this and think that I must therefore support Obama for president. Not at all. I am a member of that rare species known as the Massachusetts Republican. (There are like six of us.) I actually agree with many of the positions that Mitt Romney campaigned on in the nineties when he ran for the Senate and for governor. In other words, I agree with neither candidate now.

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