Useful Idiots: Triggering Social Conservatives With Wedge Issues

Homophobes don’t want to see or hear about LGBTQ people, especially not when they’re consuming media content. 

This came into focus yet again when two big consumer brands created ads featuring gay couples. Social conservatives and their conjoined trolls went nuts, predictably.

Walmart recently developed a video featuring two gay men going on a blind date. Cottonelle toilet paper, meanwhile, produced a fun commercial about a gay man feeling more confident about meeting his boyfriend’s parents after using Cottonelle’s latest product.

But what the reactionary conservative audience doesn’t realize is that they are being used by Walmart and Cottonelle for amplification. When brands recognize LBGTQ people, the social conservative movement cranks up the outrage machine, resulting in free publicity for just the cost of making an ad.



This is good news for brands, extending their media investments while positioning them as forward-thinking and socially liberal. 

But the altruistic nature of these firms is often beside the point.  The Walmart video, for one, was not a traditional broadcast segment but was instead produced for social media. So it becomes likely that social conservatives were alerted to it by the company itself.

This alerting function works as part of an overall media strategy, because social conservative trolls will always react to progressive images conflicting with their world view. Online rage will flare, memes will proliferate, and toothless “boycotts” will be organized — all amounting to nothing more than a blip on the radar. The whole process is  designed to get attention for brands.

Wedge issues feed our short-attention-span news cycle when ads trigger conservatives. Fortunately, news organizations tend to cover both sides of a controversy, rarely falling on the side of the haters. Corporations are savvy to this, understand the cycle, and know that their products are gaining high-value earned media, more effective and lasting than traditional advertising.

Today’s social conservatives are the “useful idiots” that marketers dream of. Fox News worshippers are ready, willing and able to promote any controversial brand story that comes along, for free. Because they respond to fear as “a business strategy” in a truly Pavlovian fashion, they are a bankable resource for marketers. Triggering the rubes pays off (as an author discussing Fox Network's practices notes in The New Yorker).

If they ever truly understood their role as pawns, social conservatives might not take the bait. But hair-trigger social media commentary is so easy, and people find it hard to stop themselves.

Ideally, stories featuring LBGTQ citizens would be judged solely on their merits, but that is not the case in today’s charged political and social environment. Instead, we’re in an uneasy world where brands can opportunistically leverage social conservatives’ self-righteous indignation for attention. 

As a marketer, I suppose I’m giving away an important secret about brand activation. But as a person, I would like to think that the longer-term benefit is that the angry and ignorant among us are spreading the normalization of LGBTQ people across the media, and ultimately across society.

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