In the picture, there's a woman on a yellow background. She's young. She's blonde. She's in a bikini. And she asks, in large bold type, "Are you beach body ready?" At the bottom of the poster someone has scrawled "**** off. I'm describing one of the now-infamous defaced Protein World ads. A couple of months ago, in London, the ads were graffittied, parodied, and finally removed after people protested about them online. Detractors called the ads sexist, inappropriate, and body shaming.
It became a big news story. Not one that Protein World necessarily set out to create. And, in my view, the image and messages were no different from what you'll see on every high street and newsstand this summer. But nevertheless, once outrage ensued, the brand knew what to do. The CEO gave interviews saying he'd take the 'terrorists' seriously (yes, he used that headline-friendly word) if their online petition reached one million signatures. It was all obviously a great success. The company has just recycled the same ad creative into a giant billboard in Times Square.
As a former PR, I cringe at chasing negative column inches. But maybe it's time for me to accept that we live in the era of outrage advertising. Here's the formula: brand creates controversial campaign; outrage ensues; brand withdraws or stands behind campaign. Either way, campaign goes big and lives online forever.
Brands used to fear this type of response online. Remember Motrin Moms? Dove skin lightening products? Eurostar? The case studies went round and round the conference circuit. We studied them for how to avoid danger. We did not want to poke the bear. But now we're poking the bear. In our quest to 'go viral', we've learned that outrage drives people to vigorously share information. (Refer to Noah Berger's book Contagious.) Sharing, even if negative and hate-filled, means free impressions!
So exciting is the prospect of free media that marketers such as Ryan Holiday have turned outrage ads into a legitimate tactic. Holiday is the marketing strategist and self-confessed media manipulator behind the controversial American Apparel ads. The ones with porn stars wearing nothing but socks and those up-skirt photos.
He explains in his book Trust Me I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, that not all of his ads are designed to provoke outrage. Self-righteousness and titillation work too. But the formula is the same – he creates ads that will go "from being something I had to pay for people to see (by buying ad inventory) to something people would gladly post on the front page of their highly trafficked websites".
Holiday is specifically going after mainstream press coverage by creating controversy that blogs will cover first. This then moves up the chain. He argues, convincingly, he's simply playing the media at their own game. But I worry about brands provoking the social media mob directly. In Jon Ronson's recently published So You've Been Publicly Shamed, he examines the dark side of the social media mob phenomenon. "A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land… The silent majority have found their voice."
Should brands leverage that new-found voice? Repackage the vitriol into a marketing machine? Maybe this thoughtless public shaming deserves to be manipulated. But there's something darker about turning people's supposed moral outrage into a cheap distribution network.
Ronson concludes that for individuals "the smartest way to survive is to be bland". No brand wants to be bland. After all, Holiday credits his advertising strategy with "taking online sales [at American Apparel] from 40 million dollars to nearly 60 million dollars in three years – with a miniscule ad budget".
But all the brand bile reminds me of something else. Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine's research in Outside In revealed that companies who provide outstanding customer experiences consistently outperform in the stock market. They recommend a simple formula: happy customers = happy shareholders.
Sure, outrage advertising works. You gain brand awareness, free press, and free impressions. But at what cost? You spread the message among those who will never buy your product. You may even alienate fans. But more importantly, at what cost to your character? Just because we know how to manipulate consumers doesn't mean we should.
In my 20s, I tried to spin a PR hook out of a child abduction story. (I know.) The charity I phoned to get a quote from told me the idea was gross and hung up. Now, as a parent in my 30s, I'm more considered about what I put out into the world. There's too much outrage online already. Please, don't poke the bear.