Commentary

Six Degrees Of Internet Excoriation

Earlier in the week, I posted this snarky joke on social media: “The CEO of United just sent Sean Spicer a huge fruit basket, regifted from Pepsi.”

Friends added that the basket was probably dropped off in an Uber driven by Bill O’Reilly.

Indeed, in the land of easy moral outrage that is Twitter and Facebook (see “Saturday Night Live”’s recent bit about a slacktivist named “Scott”) it seems that very different kinds of stories earn equal levels of immediate excoriation (and subsequent PR massages.)

The recent election has left us more passionately activated than ever and ready to pounce.

In terms of earned-outrage/trending for the wrong reasons, however, there is no equivalent in the brand world for Presidential spokesperson Sean Spicer’s  stupefying spa-ification (or malicious misreading?) of 20th century history. As everyone knows, Spicer referred to the millions who were gassed to death in concentration camps during World War II as “people sent to Holocaust Centers.”

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The outrage continues, for good reason. Perhaps it taught us that any argument that begins with “Even Hitler…” is a non-starter.

At the same time, in the far more hollow and ephemeral world of brands, mistakes were made. (To quote Nixon, who used the passive voice to  tamp down any particular ownership of said mistakes.)

But nothing is as visceral and painful as watching a video of a 69-year-old Vietnamese doctor getting his face bashed in by security guys, (whether or not they worked directly for United was a moot point) screaming in agony, and then getting dragged down the plane’s aisle, for removal like a carcass. It activated every flyer’s “there but for the grace of…” hatred of airlines.

It’s already a cliché, of course. But since 9/11 (and really starting before that, with the deregulation of airlines) air travel has become more like a detention sentence: removing belts and shoes, getting felt (or roughed) up by security attendants, and after many delays or changes, squeezing into the miniaturized, smelly oblivion of a bad seat, if you are lucky enough to keep it. (And then good luck with getting your luggage.)

Ironically, the strength of United’s past image advertising was a factor in creating an even more powerful dissonance for anyone watching. People on social media platforms went wild with “Cue the Gershwin music!” memes. ( The music is luscious, romantic, and nostalgic.). Talk about a disconnect over the video of a screaming man.

The image of Dr. Dao not only symbolized how inhuman flying has become, it also seemed to stand for how powerless consumers now feel in general.  And with the mother-of-all-bombings and war on the horizon, how powerless citizens  in general are feeling.

It didn’t help that CEO Oscar “PR Week Communicator of the Year” Munoz had to take three stabs at an apology before getting it semi-humanoid-sounding.  At first, his statement used the “We are the corporate bubble world” term “ reaccommodated” for what happened to this passenger. Yes, apparently, Dr. Dao’s lawyer (who, during his press conference, seemed straight out of a “Curb your Enthusiasm” episode) later explained that along the way, United had also reaccommodated the poor guy’s brains, teeth, cheekbone, and nose.

Certainly, Pepsi handled its own debacle — a tone-deaf commercial — a lot more smoothly. The soda-maker pulled the spot within 24 hours and issued a rational, simple, human-sounding apology.

Given all that’s happened since, it seems that the public might be getting nostalgic over last week’s Pepsi bashing.

Curiously, the company’s stock price is at an all-time high. (Is this analogous to O’Reilly’s ratings soaring after the Times piece about his $13 million in payoffs to women who filed harassment suits came out?)

Even stranger, a recent Morning Consult online survey showed that about 44% of people had a “more favorable” view of Pepsi after seeing the ad.  And while one of the prime complaints was that the spot trivialized and exploited the Black Lives Matter movement, and other recent political incidents, 75% of Latinos and 51% of African Americans said that watching the ad made them feel more favorably toward Pepsi.  Those numbers were way higher than those of whites, 41% of whom felt more favorably toward Pepsi after seeing the ad.  

I actually did a radio interview on a call-in show about the Pepsi mess, and one caller announced that “the message is about peace and unity, and liberals can’t stand to see that.”

Certainly consumers have very differing views of what is just. Sometimes, as the SNL “Scott” video showed, some liberal outrage is partially an attack on our own hypocrisy, racking up “likes” instead of volunteering our time.

Indeed, a source close to the Pepsi “Jump In” production told me that it was intended to represent more of a street celebration—think the Gay Rights parade—than a protest. She said it got “recontexualized” as soon a blogger put the still image of Ieshia Evans,  powerfully facing a line of riot cops who were arresting her at a Black Live Matter protest, next to a screen grab of model Kendall Jenner handing a hot cop a cold can of Pepsi.  That happened 12 hours after release of the spot, and became the prism though which everyone viewed it, afterwards, until it was pulled.  (Granted, many people could have connected those images beforehand.)

The survey numbers could be off; look at our past election. Or they could also show that Latinos and blacks, without politicizing the message, liked the spot because it was filled with action, good music —and most importantly, non-white faces, unlike most commercials. Or they may just see a lot of pretty, fashionable, model-y people and a hunky cop, and like the images.  Or maybe they were Kendall fans.

What’s to be learned? Well, as everyone knows by now, advertising is far more than a carefully crafted sales/brand message. In the land of Internet outrage, every single thing a corporation or a brand does is part of its advertising. And consumer reviews, videos, and critiques are available online for immediate scrutiny — and blowback. United is an extreme example of corporate inhumanity, but perhaps every major company is but one step away from pulling a Pepsi.

In another irony, at a time when we are generally feeling more and more powerless, the idea that people can find a way to force brands and companies to respond to their criticism is, after all,  somehow empowering.

3 comments about "Six Degrees Of Internet Excoriation".
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  1. Deirdre Hanssen from The Promo Zone, April 14, 2017 at 10:10 p.m.

    Well put, Barbara.

  2. Heidi Peach from It's A Peach, April 15, 2017 at 11:13 a.m.

    Will CEO's ever learn that the truth is the best statement?  

  3. Ken Kurtz from creative license, April 23, 2017 at 2:02 p.m.

    Been around media for a long time, and I don’t understand why Barbara would characterize a spot that every human being on the planet has now seen, and that everybody has been talking about for weeks (without having to invest in a media buy) as a “debacle” (defined as a “catastrophe, disaster, ruin”).

    I’m not sure either why she calls the spot “tone-deaf” (in what parallel universe is empathy for the hard-working, underpaid, “put their lives on the line every day for us” law enforcement community considered wrong?).

    Let’s face it, it’s really easy to “pull a spot” that everybody on planet earth has already seen, and is already talking about (and, by the way, that anybody can pull up in a millisecond on the Internet). Pulled?

    Sounds more to me like the left is attempting to pull people’s legs. As for that spot “trivializing” the “BLM” movement… “BLM” is doing a fine job of that all by itself.

    Let’s face it, the whole “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative revolving around the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson back in August 2014, and which served as flashpoint for BLM, has been entirely debunked. It was false, totally bogus. Facts are, Brown committed six crimes that day in a very short period of time, the last of which (attempting to relieve young police officer Darren Wilson of his government issued gun) got him shot, and killed. Had Brown been white, yellow, brown, purple, or rainbow… he would have wound up just as dead for such a bumble-headed final crime regardless.

    For BLM to cease, and desist with their very own self-trivialization, the African-American community in this country will do well to stop gunning each other down, and BLM will do well to REALLY FOCUS on that unfortunate proclivity toward violent crime among their own. Blacks are 13% of America’s population, yet commit over 50% of all America’s murders. Add in other violent crimes like assault, rape, armed robberies and burglaries, arson, carjackings, and attempted murder… and 13% of our population is committing over 80% of ALL VIOLENT CRIME in America. These are real department of Justice numbers, and if you watch the news (and have even a minimal level of intellectual honesty), you’re aware that those numbers are on the rise, as opposed to decreasing.
    It’s tone-deaf to provide a cold drink to the law enforcement community that bears the brunt of this. There are a few bad apples in every universe… stop throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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