Indiana Restaurant Pulls Billboards With Jonestown Reference

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South Bend, Indiana (South Bend Tribune) ~ A northern Indiana restaurant is removing billboard ads which featured a refrerence to the 1978 Jonestown cult massacre, following complaints that the signs were offensive.

Jeff Leslie, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, did acknowledge that the bilboards were a mistake; he also added that the signs were removed after two weeks into the advertising campaign. “Our role is not to be controversial or even edgy. We want to be noticed — and there’s a difference,” he said. “We have a responsibility to (advertise) with care, and that’s why we’re pulling this ad. We made a mistake and don’t want to have a negative image in the community.”

The billboards contained the phrase, “We’re like a cult with better Kool-Aid,” over a glass containing a mixed drink, as well as another tag: “To die for!”

In November of 1978, more than 900 men, women and children of the People’s Temple, led by Reverend Jim Jones, drank a cyanide-laced, grape flavor Kool-Aid mix in a mass murder/suicide in Guyana, South America.

Local resident Patricia Barbera-Brown lives a few blocks from one of the signs, and said she was so shocked upon first reading it that she had to circle the block to read it again. “I thought perhaps I had misread the sign,” she recalls. “It brought back quite a few horrible images and memories, and the very notion that a local restaurant would trivialize such a worldwide tragedy to simply increase their sales of cocktails is outrageous to me, and it offended me to the core.”

Barbera-Brown fired off an e-mail to Hacienda’s executives, telling them she thought the billboards were “not funny at all,” calling them “extremely offensive and very irresponsible marketing.” They responded back to her, apologizing and informing her that the signs were to be removed.

Leslie said Hacienda analyzes many aspects in determining a theme for an ad campaign, and try to use that theme to connect with the community and resonate with customers. As they brainstormed about how people belong to clubs and teams, he said they discussed how an entity can develop a cult following of like-minded people. Leslie added, “it went the wrong direction, hit a nerve, and we have come to realize we should not have done this billboard. We lose the core message,”

Katherine Sredl, assistant professor of marketing at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, agreed that the company’s message came across wrong. “They want people to think there are more things to love there than the food, but it’s not the right humor for its clientele,” she said.

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