Are more businesses taking a social or political stand today than ever before? Or has the amplification power of social media simply drawn more attention to those that do? It’s a question I’ve asked myself often over the past year; however, at no time more than recently when a client asked if the creation of a “social-scandal” campaign would be successful strategy for them.
After a few moments of bewilderment, I laughed and shrugged off the question as sarcastic commentary on recent events. Then I realized it was a serious question. Frankly, I was unsure how to respond. My gut yelled “No!” but the debater in me said, “Hold up, wait a minute. Why not?”
We’re all familiar with the waves created by Chick-fil-A, an Atlanta-based fast food restaurant, for comments made by owner Dan T. Cathy supporting the “biblical definition of the family unit”…essentially speaking out against gay marriage rights. It created a viral social media storm that saw many people across the nation boycotting the restaurant chain, while an equal (if not greater) number hopped on organized bus tours to local Chick-fil-As to buy chicken sandwiches in support of the restaurant.
That firestorm came on the heels of another social boycott campaign that erupted after Kraft Foods posted a Photoshopped advertisement of an Oero (“America’s Favorite Cookie”) stuffed with rainbow colored layers and the caption: “Proudly Support Love.” Reaction to both cases was like an unexpected tsunami and they quickly became the main topic of conversation across social media, television and newspapers as well as at both boardroom and kitchen tables across North America.
The earned media – what many consider to be the holy grail of social media marketing measurement –generated by the political or civil statements issued by these corporations is so great in our hyper-connected world that I’ve often wondered how calculated they are. I’ve dismissed the thought, convincing myself that the viral storm created is a by-product of the social media age, that such beliefs and statements have always been shared, but have never had the ability to be broadcast so quickly and so far.
Like Moths to a Flame
Consumers, emboldened by social network communities and technologies, are like moths to a flame when it comes to these issues. Digital and literal flash mobs are quickly formed and roll downhill like a snowball down a snow-covered mountain. A more recent example, among many, is the gun-control debate in the U.S. and Starbucks’ position statement that guns are not welcome in its stores. Or the national headline-grabbing commentary by Paula Deen, a popular Food Network personality, author, and spokesperson, when she admitted to using racial epithets. The social media storm condemning Ms. Deen exploded like a bomb across the Internet, resulting in the Food Network, along with many of the brands that hired her as a spokesperson, to fire her. However, these actions also caused her supporters to solidify their loyalty and become true advocates. Three months later, her books are top sellers and she’s appearing at standing-room-only events. In fact, although Walmart reported it would pull its support, it didn’t pull any of Deen‘s products from the shelves.
It seems that a good social media scandal, calculated or not, does sell product.
Today’s Menu: Pasta and Bigotry Sauce
This week, Italian gay rights activists have launched a boycott of Barilla, the world’s leading pasta maker, after its chairman Guido Barilla said he would only portray the “classic family” in his advertisements. If that were not enough, he went on the attack by saying that if people objected to his position, they should feel free to eat a different kind of pasta. These comments were made to reporters when questioned about his earlier declaration that he would “not consider using a gay family to advertise Barilla pasta.”
“For us the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company,” Mr. Barilla offered. “I would not do it but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others … [but] I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family.”
When questioned on the effect that such a public statement would have on the sales of his product, especially among his gay customers, he said: “Well, if they like our pasta and our message they will eat it; if they don’t like it and they don’t like what we say they will … eat another.”
In this day and age, he must be aware of the media storm that such a comment would create. He’s clearly courting controversy, recognizing that such comments would incite the ire of the public. Does he know something that the rest of us are not comfortable admitting?
Bertolli, one of Barilla’s biggest rivals, picking a play from the Oreo-Superbowl newsjacking handbook, posted this pro-gay image on its German Facebook page in order to convince angry Barilla customers to switch to their pasta sauce.
By aligning their company’s values with a hot political and civil issue, each company is drawing a line in the sand, especially Barilla. Advocates for gay rights and their supporters will move to one side, opponents to the other. Mr. Barilla is betting that those who boycott his product will do so in public statements only and/or that those who support his statements will become fervent advocates and buy more products. In either case, he’s betting he’ll come out a winner. More often than not, social media controversy sells. Precedent seems to have been set.
So you can understand why answering a client’s question about the validity of social media controversy as a marketing strategy isn’t as black and white as it may first appear. From Chick-fil-A to Barilla – Is Courting Controversy The Next Big Thing?
Has the mix of social networking connectivity and political and religious ideologies inadvertently formalized an “us vs. them” sales and marketing strategy?
Are businesses starting to court political and civil controversy to sell products or is social media simply shining a bigger light on the views of business owners?
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego