In recent years, the way brands approach public relations and customer interaction has changed radically. When your ASOS or Amazon package doesn’t arrive on time, your first step might be to send a tweet or DM to their official accounts. You’re then likely to hear from a sales team member or social media intern within minutes. Some even go beyond customer service and go to great lengths to provide humorous, cutting content that quickly goes viral; Tesco seem particularly adept at this, whether that’s ribbing a guy who implied that it’s uncool to be on Tesco Mobile, making a pun about ‘hitting the hay’ during their horse meat scandal in 2013, or flippantly telling a Tweeter that they probably aren’t going on any dates this weekend.
An Era of Accountability
A brand’s presence on social media also allows people to come together as a collective to hold them accountable for a product, headline or action that is, at best, below par, and at worst, offensive or harmful. The examples are numerous: the beauty community alone has held gurus such as Jaclyn Hill accountable for hair and metal balls found in her range of lipstick, as well as Jeffree Star for similar reasons; the defamatory Pepsi commercial that featured Kendall Jenner was taken down in less than 24 hours after Twitter’s backlash; and the Advertising Standards Authority began to investigate a weight-loss pill company after its billboards asking ‘Are you beach body ready?’ sparked heated conversations online.
But just where is the line drawn when it comes to advertising? A tongue-in-cheek joke or pun on a billboard might be just that to some, but to others, it could be a sign of the way in which advertising manipulates stereotypes or the insecurity of consumers. In the age of social media and accountability, it’s great that companies find it more difficult to get away with ads that are racist, sexist or otherwise. If it weren’t for the long campaigning of women’s rights groups, for example, we’d still be seeing ads for cars flanked by bikini-clad women.
A Step Too Far…Or Simple Misjudgement?
But it’s not always so clear cut. A campaign by Brewdog in 2018 was withdrawn amid claims of sexism, yet the pink bottles of their Punk IPA – rebranded to ‘Pink IPA’, complete with a new design – underwent their makeover to promote the gender pay gap, with 20% of the profits going to charities that fight gender inequality. Nevertheless, it was deemed ostentatious and unnecessary by The Crafty Beeress, a beer industry blogger, and Labour MP Jo Stevens, who tweeted their distaste.
McDonald’s, usually an industry-leader when it comes to ad campaigns, dug a hole for themselves when they encouraged social media users to use the hashtag #McDStories back in 2012 in order to highlight their guarantee of fresh produce. Users shared their horror stories of ‘finding a fingernail’ in their Big Mac, being hospitalized for food poisoning, and losing 50lb after they stopped eating at the restaurant. The campaign – originally set out to promote something positive – was so disastrous it lasted a mere two hours.
The McDonald’s ad in particular is a stark reminder of just what can happen if the tides of social media turn against a brand. Never mind if the campaign has good intentions; it seems there’s nothing more people enjoy on social media than collectively complaining, for better or worse.
So what can businesses learn from this?
Unfortunately, it sometimes seems to be the case that campaigns are either a swing or a miss, depending entirely on how they’re perceived. Common sense dictates not to go for anything that might be provocative in terms of social justice, and yet the alternative – promoting equality – doesn’t always sit right with consumers either. Ads that are simple, punchy and effective, with no ulterior motives, seem to be the safest bet.
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