It’s hard enough for companies to handle PR blunders from their own team. But what do you do when another company puts your logo on controversial publicity materials?

The World Wildlife Fund is dealing with that very issue this week, as a spec ad created for them won an award and went viral on the Internet this week.

The tasteless ad, arriving online just before the anniversary of 9/11, shows a swarm of planes headed straight for New York City, with the following copy: “The tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11. The planet is brutally powerful. Respect it. Preserve it.”

Regardless of the fact that donating to the WWF can do nothing to protect against natural disasters, the 9/11 theme was not well received. The ad was picked up by The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Daily News, among others.

Environmental groups may occassionally use shock and awe to get their point across, but in the case of this particular ad, that wasn’t World Wildlife Fund’s intention at all.

The ‘Tsunami’ ad for WWF Brazil
was created on spec by a team at DDB Brazil late last year. WWF is certainly not pleased. They put up a correction on their website. The company says the ad was “never authorized or approved by any WWF
person on the planet” and that the group is investigating the
“unauthorized and illegal use of our logo.”

Meanwhile, the ad went on to compete in an ad competition sponsored by The One Club, a nonprofit that promotes “excellence” in advertising, and win a best of 2009 award.

WWF has been reaching out to bloggers and journalists to make sure they have been distanced from the creative. The bigger issue is for DDB Brazil, though. The agency tells The Daily News:

“The team in
question is no longer with the agency. DDB Brazil apologizes to anyone
who was offended or affected by the ad.  It should never have been made
and it does not portray the philosophy of the agency.”

But the negative publicity may not go away so easily. An example of the reaction, from Mediabistro:

“And apparently, DDB Brazil have no souls. File this under: Ways to
never get hired by prospective client; subsection: f*cking up their PR,
globally. The end.”

The tempest on Twitter has shifted from taking aim at WWF to DDB. The best the company can hope for is that most people who remember the ad will remember the WWF logo more than the agency that created it. But that doesn’t bode well in terms of the lawsuit that WWF is threatening to launch against DDB.

Meanwhile, other creatives they created for WWF (like this ad and the one below) that are actually on message are nowhere near as likely to get attention after this settles down.

UPDATE: As it turns out, WWF isn’t as blameless as the company would like. According to AdAge:

“Sergio Valente, president of DDB Brasil, said the ad was presented to
the WWF in Brazil in December 2008 and approved; it then ran once in a
small local paper.

‘When I saw it, I said, ‘Stop running that ad,” Mr. Valente said.”

That sounds like a convenient explanation. The companies blame the mistake on “the inexperience of some professionals on both sides, and not bad faith or disrespect toward American suffering.”

Meanwhile, the ad actually ran and was “accidentally” sent to Creativity as an example of “a great campaign.” Rather than an accidental release, this sounds like an ad that was purposely run to qualify for competition — also known as a “scam ad.” Silicon Alley Insider has a brief history of scam ads here.