Save your outraged tweets – marketers are trying to offend you

Thanks to social media, sharing your disgust at a brand’s offensive message can often benefit rather than harm them.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Just under two years ago, a week before Christmas, Slate dubbed 2014 “The Year of Outrage”. They were a little premature. Back then, no one imagined that red Starbucks cups, protein powders, and Becky With the Good Hair were waiting around the corner to stir up controversy the likes of which had never been seen before. In 2016, barely a day goes by without people shouting (usually in 140 characters or less) about something that offends them.  

Last week, it was Snapchat’s anime filter. The lens distorted users’ faces into gross, undeniably racist yellowface caricatures. It was offensive. It was also introduced a week after Snapchat’s biggest rival, Instagram, dominated the headlines with their new Stories feature.

“Lenses are meant to be playful and never to offend,” a Snapchat spokesperson said last Wednesday.

“It wasn’t our intention to offend anyone,” is usually the first thing a brand will rush to say after a social media backlash to an advertising campaign or ill-considered tweet. It’s convenient, it’s pithy, and it’s an easy enough excuse. The trouble is: it’s not always true. 

“Marketers use these shocking techniques in order to break through the clutter and be noticed,” says Kathleen Mortimer, a professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at the University of Northampton. “Social media has encouraged companies to produce something controversial which may appeal to the younger audience who may then be happy to share the material online.”  

There’s no telling whether Snapchat created an offensive filter to stir up publicity, or whether the same board of people that signed off on the negatively received Bob Marley filter in April spared no thought for whether the anime filter could be perceived as racist. But numerous other brands have used what has now been dubbed “outrage marketing” to their benefit.

Most infamous is Protein World, the little known fitness brand that soared to notoriety after their “Beach Body Ready” adverts in April 2015. Protesters vandalised the adverts – which were considered sexist body-shaming – and they were promptly scrapped after a social media campaign. But that didn’t matter. Thanks to the viral backlash, millions of people worldwide saw the adverts and Protein World made £1m in four days

Protein World owned the controversy – gaining more supporters for sticking by their message and refusing to apologise. Other brands, most notably Paddy Power, Carls Jr. and one Donald Trump, use the same trick. But many other companies are quick to apologise for offence that they themselves have calculated, even banked on.

A notable example is Urban Outfitters. In September 2014, the clothing company released a Kent State sweatshirt splattered with fake blood stains in an obvious allusion to the 1970 shootings at the university. Though they immediately apologised, Kenneth Hilario, a reporter for Philadelphia Business Journal was quick to note that the shirt was just one of many in a long line of offensive products they used to gain worldwide media and social media attention.

"What some marketers have realised is that with polarising products and campaigns, they can use the outrage – real or sincere – of their opponents to hijack the media and get attention,” says Ryan Holiday, the former Director of Marketing for American Apparel and author of Trust Me, I’m Lying. While working on the PR for the Tucker Max movie I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, Holiday deliberately defaced billboards and created fake tweets in order to drum up a protest movement. He then sent photos of the fake protest to blogs and news websites, who fell for the stunt.

“The main reason I wrote the book was to expose how the whole outrage cycle and controversy machine works,” he says. “It was perfectly fun and fine to exploit that for t-shirts and books but I think it's rather scary to watch the masterclass of manipulation put forth by someone like Donald Trump. That's the main reason I talk about it. When people understand how it works, maybe they'll stop falling for it.”

Shock advertising isn’t new, and it adapted for the internet early when brands made adverts they knew would be banned from TV in order to accumulate millions of views on YouTube. Studies in advertising journals have noted that shocking adverts are more attention grabbing and memorable, yet social media has made the strategy more profitable than ever. Back in the day, an outrageous advertisement warranted a few frantic calls to Ofcom over some spilt cups of tea. Now it means viral notoriety, with a message, product, or brand being disseminated to hundreds of thousands of eyes for free.

The week before Snapchat’s filter was lambasted, Sprite got into trouble for their #BrutallyRefreshing billboard campaign. The sexist adverts included such slogans as: “She's seen more ceilings than Michelangelo” and “You're not popular... you're easy”. Though the adverts were only in Ireland, they were seen across the world after Twitter users shared their outrage. Sprite pulled the adverts and apologised. Regardless of whether the controversy was intentional, in the last week alone  long after the billboards were pulled  the campaign has receieved 1,627,356 Twitter impressions:

But just because outraged retweets are cheaper than plonking a billboard in every major city doesn’t mean that being offensive doesn’t cost a brand. It is clearly a risky strategy. “There is a drive for companies to act in a more ethical and sustainable way,” says Mortimer. “It is recognised that unethical behaviour can lead to a lack of trust and consequently customers end up not believing anything that companies say in their advertising.”

Holiday agrees. “Almost every day I get an inquiry from someone saying, ‘I want you to do something crazy like you did with American Apparel or Tucker Max or whomever’. The reality is that they don't. They want the media attention but they aren't willing to take any risks. In some ways, only the crazy people do.” 

Yet the risks aren’t as large as they’d first appear. Although people on social media frequently threaten to boycott brands, marketers have long since called their bluff.

“Social media amplifies the illusion of outrage, making it seem more dangerous and risky than it is,” Americus Reed, a Wharton marketing professor told the school’s online business analysis journal. “The reason is because social media outrage is completely costless. If you have a million people expressing outrage, there may be a hundred who do something that has any traction. Memory fades.”

Countless examples prove this. Epicurious, a cooking and recipe site that got into hot water after making light of the Boston bombings on Twitter, still has 2.2m followers. Blizzard still made $269m after social media complained about the sexist cover of its game Overwatch. Although Abercrombie and Fitch's sales initially plummeted after the CEO said he didn't want fat” people wearing their clothes, their sales figures have recently returned to growth. Urban Outfitters and Snapchat are still incredibly popular brands.

Americus Reed also isn’t a lone voice. From books to blogs (start here, here and here), you don’t have to look far for marketers publicly espousing the benefits of generating outrage in order to promote a brand. “Outrage + Controversy = Massive Traffic,” writes Derek Halpem from Social Triggers. “While some people call this manipulation, the truth is that it’s just smart marketing.”

Short of whistleblowers, it’s impossible to say which brands deliberately try to offend and which are suffering from an abundance of old white men on their marketing teams. You might be a fan of Hanlon’s razor, which is to say: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness.” Perhaps multibillion pound companies like Sprite and Snapchat are simply careless with their advertising decisions. “Having created campaigns that were deliberately provocative and seen how it works, it certainly makes you cynical,” says Holiday.

All of this is something social media users need to bear in mind next time they see an offensive advert. It is obviously important to call out sexism, racism, and other prejudice when you see it, but it’s also important to question what your outrage will achieve. Sometimes, it might be better to silently stop buying a product and spread the message by private message or word of mouth rather than inadvertently promote a brand.

A trickier question to ask is why you’re tweeting your outrage in the first place. Not everyone who does so is an altruistic crusader for justice and human rights. Research has shown that people can get “addicted” to receiving a strong response on social media, and many may enjoy the retweets and shares their agreeable opinion brings in.

“Outrage can be a productive emotion, but often it isn't – it's merely being exploited to benefit someone seeking exposure or media outlet desperate for your attention," says Holiday. "I think you want to ask yourself: What will getting upset about this solve or add to the equation?

“Cicero's famous line, ‘Cui bono?’ is what we need to ask ourselves when we read something with outrage in the headline.” Who profits? 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh