Vodafone vs. Ravelry

Bundle!

Bundle!

It’s all kicking off on the Ravelry boards … words flying, comments censored, needles aimed … the cause? A post submitted by someone working with Vodafone in Ireland on a ‘Cheer Up Ireland’ campaign which involves a bit of urban knitting (although there’s no mention of the project on their website.)

The idea is not a new one but started out with the best of intentions by Eilish Tuite, a third year sculpture student in Limerick school of Art and Design. She is working on a project called Urban Knit, the aim of which is to cover a disused building in Limerick City. The cover will eventually be chopped up into smaller blankets and donated to St.Vincent’s Charity (hopefully washed and repaired after much exposure to the elements?), although as DeadlyKnitshade points out in her post, the charity don’t seem to be asking for knitted blankets, more “help financially and/or by giving of your time”.

Eilish has been calling for contributions of wool since the beginning of February, and I’m not sure whether Vodafone approached her after the project had been initiated or if it was the other way round.

cheerupThen a post popped up on Ravelry yesterday encouraging people to submit knitted squares. The contributor who started off the thread (under the username of Slkav) had joined Ravelry the same day – no profile, no knitting projects, no other contributions save this post. Their email address suggests they work for a company called Simply Zesty – an online pr and social media agency who frankly should know better.

After a few initial encouraging messages, the mood has changed as knitters have started to voice their resentment at the attempt to lure them into a corporate campaign.

Boff, where do we start with this? Advertising campaigns surrounding both the arts and charities are nothing new, nor is getting the unwitting public involved in contributing content, but I think the Vodafone case is a prime example of lazy PR bods delving into what they see as the subculture of the moment and underestimating the community. Subtlety and integrity are sadly lacking in this fumbled attempt to infiltrate the tight-knit (pardon the pun) group and this is, of course, a ridiculous crime in an era of online social networking, particularly from a company claiming to be experts in that field.

The group the thread is posted in is a fairly anonymous one called ‘Needlework on the Net‘ which seems to have been picked for its popularity and the frequency of its member contributions. Possibly where Slkav went wrong was in underestimating the passion the Ravelry members feel for their craft – that and the ability to sniff out a fake a mile off.

Knitters do not like being patronised – we’ve got years of dodgy imagery to live down and most of us are proud of, and committed to, our craft, so for a corporate representative to dip in with no background or enthusiasm in the field stinks of fraud.

A Copley's pattern for 1940s soldiers' comforts

A Copley's pattern for 1940s soldiers' comforts

We love what we do and we especially love it if there’s an excellent reason for doing it – knitting for causes has been consistently popular since ladies started knitting soldiers’ comforts during the Crimean War (the cardigan is named after the 7th Earl of Cardigan, the first British officer to cross the Russian lines in the famous Charge of the Light Brigade) and, of course, continued to do so during the First and Second World Wars.  There are plenty of charities out there calling for knitted contributions (this Get Knitting article is a good place to start if you’re interested), we can personally choose which charity we’d like to help out, so it feels cheap when corporates come over all bandwagonesque and hitch a ride.

Vodafone, and possibly Elish herself, are probably a little bewildered by this tremendous backfire – after all, if a big brand name approached me with an offer to sponsor a project with maximum publicity, I’d definitely flirt with it for a while, maybe even go to second base. Financial and business patronisation of the arts is another age-old concept, they have always had a necessary and yet uneasy relationship. It’s a vulnerable alliance, easily soured and needing to be handled with care – I watched many bands who jumped at the chance to sign to a huge label, grateful for the money and opportunity, only to become embittered when they saw their artistic control wither away.

Innocent's 'Big Knit'

Innocent's 'Big Knit'

Knitting and craft generally is hot news at the moment and there are plenty of media types currently wanting a piece of it (yes you Harry Hill!). It’s inevitable and not always a car-crash – Innocent Drinks have successfully run ‘The Big Knit‘ for a few years now, a campaign set up alongside Sainsbury’s, which encourages people to send in small knitted hats for the bottles. For every behatted smoothie sold, 35p is given to Age Concern and Help The Aged. They give full details of where the money goes and it’s clear they’re working alongside the charity. Sure it’s a marketing gimmick, but it’s better thought-through and more sympathetic to the cause than Vodafone’s limp effort, and they came up with it before knitting hit the big-time.

Hopefully this case will be a warning to other marketeers … use your heads, show commitment and less of the patronisation you monkies!

P.S. For more info on what happens to knitted items and textiles donated to charity, read Deadly Knitshade’s informative Ravelry post, or go straight to the informative article she links to

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  1. Lauren Fisher at 19:40

    Hi, I run Simply Zesty, the social media agency in Ireland. Firstly I would like to apologise if we have offended anyone, that certainly wasn’t our intention and the good feedback we have received is certainly in the majority here.
    We went into the forum with the best of intentions, you can see from the post that we certainly weren’t hiding anything, and stated that we were working with Vodafone, and left a simplyzesty email address. We are working with Eilish very closely on this project and she brought the ravelry site to our attention. We very rarely go into forums on behalf of clients, if at all, but as this was such a worthy cause we thought it right to go into the site and post a message. We have had incredibly good feedback from there both publicly and privately.
    We don’t believe we have underestimated the community, because we are working so closely with Eilish and many others, who are active in the ‘community’. On a local level we are also engaging with knitting groups in a very real way and again the feedback has been positive.
    I really am sorry that you feel we treated the users with any form of disrespect. We certainly don’t think we’ve committed a crime and I still feel that what we did was right, but you’re not going to please everyone all the time :)
    Your insight into this is very valuable.

    • admin at 21:50

      Hello, firstly many thanks for taking the trouble to reply and in such detail. I appreciate that you think this is a good cause, but I think that’s an even better reason to tread carefully and respectfully. Charity is often used as a banner to be waved without much thought behind the action. I also appreciate that you were not cloak-and-dagger about leaving your post, but when you dip a toe in a forum where people are passionate about the subject matter, it does help to display a degree of knowledge and enthusiasm about the topic. The potential to be ‘flamed’ is huge – I should know, I can feel the heat tickling my toes! Erm … also I’m not entirely sure that the majority of the feedback on the Ravelry post was positive.

      Of course there’s an element of not being able to please all the people all of the time, but corporate brands enlisting the help of artistic or craft-based communities (particularly under the auspices of helping charity) is always going to be tricky ground requiring a careful step – in this case you’re dealing with a craft-form which contains a degree of anarchic and often political expression (ie public urban art or graffiti), and has already come under some pressure from the knitting community. I am personally not a fan of this kind of campaign (did you guess?!), but there are ways of working alongside communities and I maintain that a PR company cold-calling a forum isn’t one of them.

      I remain to be convinced that this was a well-considered campaign, but I do wish Eilish all the best with her project and for the future.

  2. Hannahbelle at 20:27

    This was a great concise way to organize the subject matter of the thread in a semi-unbiased (obviously you are a knitter) way.

    To Simply Zesty (which, for some reason, my mind immediately switches to ‘Sexy Vesty’), I would just like to point out that I think most of the disagreement in the thread was based on the simple facts that you are asking people to do unpaid work to support an advertisement for a company that could afford to do actual paid work

    You are supporting an art student who obviously doesn’t have the skills or resources required to work in this media. As a former art student, I feel that it is really…. uncouth to approach people whose media *is* knitting or crochet or spinning and request that they make your vision happen so you can get paid. Because that’s frankly what it’s looking like. She’s getting paid (‘sponsored’) for other people’s work. What costs will she incur? Knitters are paying the shipping, handling and labor for the covering. Vodafone is paying for installation, and possibly building permissions. I don’t feel like this is art at this point, any more. Did the original artist even have a creative vision? And how is she applying it by asking other people to do this for her benefit? None of the knitters are getting credit for her ‘handiwork’.

  3. Lauren Fisher at 13:39

    Hi everyone. Thanks for your comments and feedback.

    I would just like to make it clear that Eilish isn’t getting paid for this and that she approached Vodafone with her existing project (it has been running for quite a few months), rather than the other way around.
    With regards to your questions about the creative vision, I’ll pass these on to Eilish. She is very close to the project and spending a lot of time on it, so she’ll be able to answer better than I could! I don’t want to put words in her mouth. I know she would be particularly concerned that it’s being suggested she doesn’t have the skill to work in this media. She has done a lot of work with the local community in Limerick to send in patches and is nearly always knitting patches herself.
    I know that the particular concerns are more about us (Simply Zesty) and going into the Ravelry forum, but we had spoken to Eilish a lot about this before, and one of our staff members who is a regular on the site and it seemed like a good approach. Again, because of some of the great feedback that we’ve got (not all of it public), I still think it was. Guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one :)

    Again, this really is all very valuable feedback and has certainly been taken on board. I’ll have to admit that it’s come as a bit of a surprise. I really would like to apologise if anyone feels like we’ve ‘used’ the knitting community. That honestly was never our attention, we just wanted to get the word out about Eilish’s project, particularly as at the end of the campaign the blankets are being separated and given to hostels all over the country.
    Thanks for such a lively debate on the topic and some definite thinking points for me.
    If anyone wants to talk about this privately etc.., my email is lauren@simplyzesty.com

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