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The Carolina Panthers and Lowe’s could have avoided the PR backlash to giving a 12-year-old a free lawnmower

The team’s feel-good PR stunt was too much about them and not nearly enough about the young man.

The Carolina Panthers and Lowe’s could have avoided the PR backlash to giving a 12-year-old a free lawnmower

Back in August, local news profiled the entrepreneurial, 12-year-old South Carolinian Jaylin Clyburn, who started his own lawn mowing business to start saving for college. In the story, one of his clients said the young man’s small lawn mower was “really almost a toy.” The story also highlighted Clyburn’s love of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

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So on Friday, the Carolina Panthers posted a video of head coach Ron Rivera giving Clyburn a new, free lawnmower from Lowe’s and making him an honorary member of the team’s official grounds crew. Find a heart-warming story, insert your brand into it somehow—usually with free stuff—and voilà! A pretty standard feel-good PR stunt, right?

Except the reaction online almost immediately called out both the Panthers and Lowe’s for not giving more.

Obviously, there are two sides to this. Some people don’t think a 12-year-old should be working—or at least not that much. Others believe that Clyburn should be rewarded more significantly for a strong work ethic. Either way, the Panthers and Lowe’s could have handled this better.

In the 90-second video, Clyburn says less than 10 words. This is his story, but instead the focus is on what the Panthers and Lowe’s are doing for him. Maybe let the young man tell his story, why he’s mowing lawns, what he likes about it, what his dreams are, and then acknowledge and celebrate his work ethic and ambition. So much of this comes down to simple editing and tone. If you’re a brand trying to do something nice for someone, don’t make it all about you.

When Mountain Dew messed up the map of Michigan back in July, it didn’t just offer the Upper Peninsula an apology; it tried to figure out the most elaborate, unexpected way to not only apologize but celebrate the region that it unintentionally misrepresented and then did it. The focus was on how cool the UP is, not the brand.

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Part of acknowledging Clyburn’s work ethic is looking at why he’s doing the work in the first place: college. This is where the brands could have really scored in the unexpected department. No one is saying Clyburn should give up his summer job entirely, but along with the new mower, even a small contribution of, say, $5,000 on a golf-style giant check to kickstart his education savings would have balanced a lot of the criticism being aimed at the brands. The South Carolina state treasury donated $250 to Clyburn’s college fund. The NFL and Lowe’s—two giant corporations—couldn’t rub enough pennies together to at least match that?

Brands are never able to please everyone, and there will always be critics, but using altruism as an advertising strategy is a balancing act that can’t be achieved when the brand appears to be the primary benefactor.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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