Fifty shades of embarrassment Article icon


While do-it-yourself chain B&Q might have issued a spoof email to staff, suggesting they prepare for a run on rope, duct tape and cable ties following the release of Fifty Shades of Grey at the cinema, the London Fire Brigade used the film’s launch to tackle the real, and growing, problem of sex-related incidents.

Between April last year and February, firefighters across London have been called to 393 incidents of people getting trapped or stuck, often in and around household objects, and have removed 28 pairs of handcuffs and 293 rings, seven of which were attached to male genitalia.

At an average cost of £295 per incident, or more than £115,000 over the past ten months and £390,000 over three years, the problem causes more than just embarrassment for the unfortunate parties.

But it’s not a new phenomenon. Between 2013 and 2014, the London Fire Brigade attended 474 similar incidents, leading the organisation to take a stand and launch ‘Fifty Shades of Red’, a campaign to draw attention  to these embarrassing incidents and highlight the role London’s firefighters play in maintaining the safety of the public.

With the release of the film in time for Valentine’s Day (and, perhaps more appropriately, coinciding with Friday 13th), Rob McTaggart, senior communications officer at London Fire Brigade, decided it was time for the campaign to make a swift return.

‘We have quite a good record of news-jacking,’ says McTaggart, of the fire brigade’s tendency to use opportunities afforded to them by relevant news stories. For example, four years ago when Kate Winslet reportedly saved Sir Richard Branson’s mother from a fire on his private island, London Fire Brigade were quick to seize upon the story and offer the actress fire fighting training, should her career fall flat.

Prior to the film’s stars walking down the grey carpet at the London film premiere, McTaggart asked his ‘stats guys’ to review the number of embarrassing incidents and found that the numbers were only increasing.

In fact, even on the day this year’s campaign launched, London Fire Brigade was called out to yet another person who had got himself into bother with a penis ring. It might have seemed like PR spin to some cynics, but to the fire brigade, it’s an unfortunate reality.

‘Stats are key in a story like this and we have a great information team who collect data which helps scope organisational policy,’ he explains. ‘Having the ability to get stats quickly for news-jacking stories is a must and they are a key element to our success.

‘We wanted to take a common sense approach. Our main aim was to reduce these incidents but also we wanted to explain that it’s not just fires that we deal with.’

Indeed, as the man who was caught with his penis in a toaster would attest, there is more than one way to get burnt. But it is not just sex-related occurrences that cause red faces. The brigade also wanted to highlight incidents where common sense has gone out of the window, such as teenagers getting stuck in children’s swings and one notable event where a man had a bicycle lock stuck around his torso.

On the day before the film’s premiere, London Fire Brigade started to tweet embarrassing real-life incidents – sometimes with accompanying photographs – with the hashtag #fiftyshadesofred on @LondonFire, which has more than 90,500 followers. No spanks, said the first tweet, New film could lead to more embarrassing handcuff incidents, which accompanied a chart highlighting the rise in incidents involving ‘the removal or objects from people and people from objects’ over the past four years.

The tweets quickly highlighted an incident involving a man ‘stuck with two penis rings for three days’ – If the ring doesn’t fit, don’t force it on, was the accompanying message – and a call out from a wife whose husband was stuck in a ‘titanium chastity belt’. Starting with such risqué tweets, however, was a tactical move for McTaggart in order to grab the attention of the brigade’s target audience.

He explains: ‘Another important element was knowing the correct tone and content for our audience. Our target audience is young professionals who respond well with humour and thought provoking tweets.’

Young professionals, who account for around one quarter of the fires that the brigade responds to, are not only more likely to engage with communications on social media, they are also more likely to be on there at specific times – namely rush hour.

McTaggart and his colleagues were able to analyse the amount of engagement and timed tweets so that they would coincide with the times that young professionals were commuting to and from work.

‘We’re still learning as we go,’ says McTaggart of his work on Twitter, with which he has been involved since @LondonFire began in 2010. Using analytics to work well is a key part of the fire brigade’s social media output. McTaggart’s colleagues were ‘continuously monitoring’ Twitter throughout the campaign and he concedes that had there been considerable criticism, the organisation might have taken a slightly different tack.

Luckily for them, the reaction from fellow tweeters was far from unfavourable. The brigade received hundreds of positive comments on Twitter and the ‘Fifty Shades of Red’ page on its website had 35,000 views in five days. To put that in perspective, on an average week, the London Fire Brigade’s entire site receives 40,000 views.

The success of the story on digital media also led to success in its traditional counterpart. A press release with the campaign’s key messaging was sent out under embargo to national publications but interest was low.

However, after hundreds of retweets and trending in the UK, the story took on a life of its own that the press could not ignore. The story ended up on the front page of The Daily Star, was featured in numerous other national titles, including Daily Telegraph and The Independent, and was even the most read story on the BBC news website.

‘Our key cut-through happened when ITV asked the cast of the film about it on the red carpet,’ says McTaggart, clearly proud to have reached the ears of stars Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, despite their looks of bafflement upon hearing the worrying trends associated with their film.

The campaign was also featured in articles in Spain, Canada and Germany, suggesting that stories about male appendages getting stuck in vacuum cleaners are universally appealing.

‘We always planned using the risqué tweets to lead onto the more normal occurrences,’ says McTaggart. ‘It’s good to see our messaging come across. A lot of things that go viral lose that, but there was a clear reasoning behind it.’

With its consistent monitoring and use of analytics, London Fire Brigade found that tweets with pictures had six times the amount of engagement and twice the amount of reach than those without and as a result, converted their statistics into handy charts and graphs, making their content not only accessible, but also easily shareable.

‘We made sure that no personal details were given which was important,’ adds McTaggart.

And whilst the fire brigade might like to communicate these incidents in the name of engaging content, those who have been caught with their trousers down are less keen to share their part in this campaign.

‘No one who has had any of these incidents has got in touch,’ assures McTaggart. It is hard to imagine why. Facepalm.