This billboard from Garieri Jewelers in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, sparked debate.
Sturbridge, Mass.—One Massachusetts jeweler has stirred up a lot of conversation with a billboard that riffs off the current NFL controversy.

Garieri Jewelers in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, recently erected a billboard that reads, “If you’re going to take a knee this season, please have a ring in your hand!” The billboard depicts a man who is down on one knee proposing to a woman with a football field in the background.

The theme is a play on the recent protests of NFL players who have knelt during the national anthem to speak out against police brutality toward African-Americans.

Owner Scott Garieri said the store has been using billboards for years now and noticed that the ones that received the most attention were those that were funny or even tongue-in-cheek.

So when the “take a knee” angle was suggested, Garieri said he jumped on the idea and planned for it to go up at the beginning of fall when football season starts.

Initial reactions were positive, he said, until one driver pulled over, snapped a photo of the billboard and posted it to Facebook, calling it racist.

The billboard since has been the subject of news stories across the country.

“We never thought it would be offensive to anyone,” Garieri told National Jeweler.

“I’m talking about something that’s been going on for many years now,” he said, referring to people getting down on one knee to propose, adding that it “just so happens to make a little play on a current issue.”
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But for as many negative comments and threats as the store has gotten, they have received just as much support in the form of positive emails and Facebook messages, Garieri said. A number of jewelers from across the country also reached out to him to say they wish they had thought of it first.

He even said the good that has stemmed from the publicity has outweighed the bad.

What’s more, Garieri said he has no plans to take down the billboard: “It’s not going anywhere.”

It will be up until about December, when the store likely will switch it out for the holidays.

He also said the negative reactions to the billboard would do nothing to change the store’s marketing tactics.

“I stick to my guns. I don’t bow to criticism unless I really deserve it, and I think those comments are undeserved.”

While Garieri stands by his billboard, marketing experts National Jeweler reached out to spoke with had mixed reactions to the message. 

Angie Ash of Fruchtman Marketing said she doesn’t find it at all shocking that the billboard caused a stir, especially with the football field background pictured on it.
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Still, she added, “The reality is there’s no guessing what someone will or won’t be offended by these days, even if your ultimate goal is celebrating love, no matter what form it takes. What pulls the trigger for one will bounce right off someone else.”

This particular billboard hit a nerve on both sides because the issue is “too polarizing,” she said, with no gray area—you’re in one camp or the other; you agree with NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem or you don’t.

“The best billboards should get attention, elicit emotion and ultimately reflect your brand. Garieri got the attention and the emotion, but I can’t say potentially alienating half your audience is worth the risk of their brand.”

Bill Gullan, president of Philadelphia-based branding agency Finch Brands, said given the political dialogue today, there is risk in injecting politics into brand communications unless the brand has a “cohesive interest in the issue and a right to speak authoritatively about it.”

But he said sees the “Take a Knee” billboard controversy as a different situation since Garieri doesn’t appear to have intended a political statement with the billboard, but rather to be “whimsical in saying that love unites us across political/cultural lines.”

He added: “The fact that they inadvertently generated controversy and attention says more about the nature of our dialogue than it does about this particular company. I’d expect that their lighthearted intent and response will score points with the great middle out there exhausted by hard-core partisans and culture warriors on both sides. So it’s a net gain for them, in my opinion.”

His general lesson for Garieri and others?

“Be aware of how toxic the political debate is at the moment and how risky it is to play close to the line.”

As Garieri noted, this is not the first time Garieri Jewelers has put up a billboard that pushes the envelope and has garnered the store extra attention.

Lauren Gilmore, owner of PR & Prose, said given that, this is the company’s tone of voice.

“As a brand and communications strategist, I have to commend them for staying true to their tone of voice,” she said. “Every marketer knows that a consistent voice is important to sales and conversion.”

She noted though that it’s good to stand out and be authentic—as long as the brand or marketer has actually thought through the backlash that could come with certain messaging.

“You are never going to make everyone happy. And you shouldn’t. That’s why you spend a lot of your time researching your target audience and personas.”

Nike is an example some of the experts used for this area, which is interesting because of its close connection to the subject matter.

The company just released a new ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who started the kneeling protests. His face appears with the slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

The campaign has received both negative and positive responses.

Ultimately, though, Nike knew there would be backlash and continued with the campaign because it fit with its brand, both Gilmore and Lexi Palmer of Meltdown Studio said.

Even more, Nike knows its customer base enough to know that most of them support Kaepernick and would be in favor of the campaign, Palmer said. Even though there was backlash, the company’s share price has soared to an all-time high after unveiling it.

Though what Garieri did was risky, Palmer said risk can also come with reward, which in this case comes with all the free publicity he’s gotten since the story went national.

Ultimately, she shared this lesson for retailers: “Know your customers. Know your customers outside your store. Where do they like to buy groceries? What hobbies or activities do they do for fun? What socio-economic class are they in? Where do they fall politically? If you understand your customers, you can push the envelope on controversial advertising.”

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