Death Star vs. Japan: How Adidas Survived One Viral Ad Campaign Gone Wrong

Adidas came up with an ingenious viral marketing campaign tied to its Star Wars collaboration. Too bad it offended the entire nation of Japan.

Adidas Death Star


 For Chris Barbour, the digital marketing guru behind Adidas’s sports style division (and #76 on Fast Company‘s Most Creative People in Business list), innovation is always worth the risk, even if the consequences are entirely unpredictable. He told the tale of one such viral marketing strategy that went terribly awry–it ended up offending the entire nation of Japan–at our Most Creative
People conference
in New York City yesterday. Here’s his story:

To promote a sneaker collaboration between Adidas and LucasFilms based on Star Wars (see below), Barbour’s team developed an app that would tie the iconic film series to consumers using geo-location. Remember the scene where Darth Vader orders the Death Star to target princess Leia’s home planet Alderaan? Using Facebook Connect, which pulled profile data and photos, and Google Earth satellite imagery, Adidas’s app was able to replace Alderaan with consumers’ homes, zeroing in on their streets with IP addresses. The laser cannon would then fire, creating a massive digital trefoil (Adidas’s three-leaf logo) crater atop your house or apartment on Google Earth with the words, “Adidas and Star Wars: Coming Soon.”

“It was a teaser,” Barbour explained, “meant to generate a lot of excitement.”

Unfortunately, the marketing strategy didn’t go viral in the way Barbour had hoped. “That night, I awoke at 3 a.m. with my BlackBerry crying,” he said. “I answered it and there was someone screaming at me in Japanese!”


As it turns out, the geo-detection system in Japan traces many IP addresses back to a large central server–a server that was located right next to the emperor of Japan’s palace. Barbour’s Death Star app had spent the night blasting away at the palace–a promo trick totally lost in translation. Soon, Adidas’s customer service center was inundated with calls from confused Japanese citizens.

Yet even after this international hiccup, the digital marketing head is still committed to taking creative risks.

“What that experience taught me,” Barbour told laughing audience members, “is that with innovation, you don’t always know the answers and you don’t always know what’s around the corner.”

“But if you don’t take the risks, then you’re not going to be where you need to be 15 to 20 years from now.”

The product line, by the way, was a huge success.



About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.