Talk about tempests in teapots...An offhanded political joke on Twitter this week amid the controversy surrounding a new Arizona law aimed at illegal immigrants resulted in a spate of online/social media posts suggesting a boycott of AriZona Iced Tea.
The irony: AriZona Beverages, makers of iced teas and other beverages, was founded in Brooklyn and is headquartered in Long Island, New York.
The controversy in which AriZona became a collateral target was set off when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill passed by the state's legislature requiring state and local police to verify the immigration status of all individuals for whom there could be "reasonable suspicion" of lack of legal documentation.
Opponents have labeled the measure an attempt to legally sanction racial profiling and an unconstitutional infringement on the federal government's right to control immigration -- pressure that prompted the Obama administration to issue a March 27 statement that it is considering a court challenge to the Arizona law, according to the Associated Press.
To help nip misconceptions in the bud, AriZona Beverages founder/ chairman Don Vultaggio took the precaution of posting a special message in the "recent concerns" area of the company's Web site (www.drinkarizona.com) headlined: "AriZona's from New York." The message, explaining the company's history/current Long Island base and stressing that AriZona is "proud to be an American company with roots in New York," was accompanied by a patriotic-themed graphic featuring the company's logo and the subtitle "An American Company."
The misunderstanding all commenced innocently enough on March 27, when Travis Nichols, a poet/fiction writer on the staff of The Poetry Foundation, tweeted a 17-word message that was ultimately confirmed by Nichols himself to have been intended as a satiric comment on calls to boycott various Arizona revenue sources, including tourism and the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team.
His tweet: "I think we should all also boycott Arizona Iced Tea because it is the drink of fascists."
That tweet was, in the words of New York Times "The Lede" blogger Robert Mackey, "used to suggest that a drink-based protest movement was sweeping the nation in an article in New York's Daily News." The Daily News followed up with a March 28 piece by writer Helen Kennedy that pointed out that AriZona is not based in Arizona.
Competitive newspaper digs aside, Mackey's own first post on March 28 about this latest tea party ta-do noted that while he hadn't been able to contact tweeter Nichols yet, previous tweets and humorous posts on other sites by Nichols suggested that the "drink of fascists" comment might well be intended as a joke.
In subsequent blog updates, Mackey reported that Nichols had "expressed shock that his comment could spread so far so fast before anyone got in touch with him to confirm that he was not kidding, or even looked closely at his other comments on Twitter."
One Mackey update added that Nichols had since conveyed to Mackey that he believed that "people writing on the Web sites of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh simply wanted evidence to support their theory that liberals are idiots and the idea that there was a misguided campaign to boycott [AriZona Iced Tea] was, as they used to say in the news business, too good to check."
Marketing "learnings," in the current parlance? Certainly, another confirmation of the power of Twitter and social media in general to have unanticipated and potentially major impact on product marketers, for good or for ill.
And within the current volatile political climate, perhaps a heads-up for any marketer that uses the name of a state (whether or not based in that state) -- or any word that might be associated with political controversies -- in its brands, to keep a particularly close watch on social media buzz?
In the words of revered old-school (pre-Twitter) broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, "Good night, and good luck."