Today’s Master of Brands Award goes to Burger King UK, who chose to start a thread on International Women’s Day with the statement “women belong in the kitchen,” a bizarre lead-in to how they’re creating a scholarship program for their female employees to pursue “their culinary dreams,” a statement almost totally bereft of substance that was hooked onto an extremely old and sexist phrase.
Naturally, when told to “delete this” by another brand account (KFC gaming), Burger King UK decided to double down - which is a KFC dish! Ha! - by suggesting that they should not delete a tweet that brought attention to a lack of female representation in cooking.
According to my good buddy Caylen, Burger King’s agency is BBH (which stands for Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty, possibly the oldest and whitest series of names I’ve ever heard), who you may remember for turning homeless people into hotspots at SXSW about 9 years ago (though that was their “labs” division). Their whole thing is being “controversial” and it works, in the sense that everybody gets pissed off and talks about how much the brand sucks for an entire day.
However, PR loves to conflate lots of impressions about something bad and/or in poor taste as being “successful.” Everybody talking about something is not good, and does not mean that people now remember your brand fondly.
If you go into town wearing a clown outfit and yell “I’m The Big Pee Pee Man” and ram your Dodge Charger into the front of a Piggly Wiggly store blasting Taproot’s Poem, but your car also says “WOMEN’S RIGHTS”, it may indeed be on the news multiple times, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve helped promote Women’s Rights. The news is going to remember you as the clown guy, and at best the clown guy who yelled he was the big pee pee man. People remember shocking and bad things, and tend to not remember context of any kind.
Being Shocking Is Not The Same As Being Daring
I like to draw the line between being shocking and being daring is when you’re attacking a norm versus challenging a bias. The line can be thin as norms are in the process of adjusting, but basically, if you go out and say something that is sexist or racist, that is attacking a norm - it is saying something specifically built to offend or hurt with the intention of eliciting a reaction. This isn’t the same as challenging people’s assumptions about something - calling out biases, problems in society, and so on - it’s the line between making people uncomfortable because they have to question themselves and uncomfortable because you said something shitty to get them to look at you.
That crucial difference is what people tend to miss - they see the increase in attention as a way to reach new people without remembering how first impressions only happen once. Even if the person likes you before, saying something dumb and offensive, even if you end up apologizing for it, proves that you care less about the customer and/or whatever thing you’ve chosen to be nasty about and more about the fact that people are mad. Rob over at BoingBoing mentioned a wonderful term - Schrodinger’s Asshole - which refers to specifically says something rude and then gauges whether or not they were bad for saying it based on how upset everyone gets, which applies perfectly here.
The problem with doing this kind of shock jock form of PR/marketing is its hubris. It acts as if it’s a deft use of the media - controversy building impressions - by harnessing how the media (both social and otherwise) loves negative stories, without realizing that the major story about you is how bad you are.
A new challenger in this space are the people taking advantage of the right wing victimhood narrative. The Goya Beans boycott came from their CEO’s endorsement of President Trump, a guy who had literally called hispanics murderers and rapists, and seeing the freaks rush to say “SIR! I LOVE GOYA BEANS SIR! THANK YOU PRESIDENT TRUMP!” has convinced certain brands (and people) that there is a movement “against” white people and conservative values, which they actually mean is a movement against people being bigots and marginalizing other people.
The temptation here by brands is that there is a “wokeness” that is policing people’s ability to live, and thus it’s good to challenge these things because people are “being too sensitive.” It’s the age old idea that you can sell things by making them good, or sell things by making people think other things are bad, basically fueling their like of something based on their own hatred and anger versus their actual values.
This works sometimes in politics because politicians are good at coming up with shit to make people mad about, but in the case of a brand selling something, hate burns out quickly. People who will buy something entirely out of spite for something else don’t really care about you or the actual quality of the thing you’re selling, and as a result your value proposition is as flimsy as the reasoning behind a person’s purchase.
Sure, you get people who buy and use things to appear a certain way and put out a certain image, but for the most part that only works when something is positive. And that rarely comes from a place of controversy - when someone wears or uses something to say that they support a cause, that’s one thing, but when someone says they’re boldly being rebellious and standing up to a vicious oppressive force by giving someone money the image of sacrifice and struggle is crushed.
While there is an audience of people who are super into people who are assholes (see Trevor Bauer), building a brand entirely based off of outrage and victimhood isn’t a longterm proposition. The size of the audience that is going to be allying with you based on the fact that everyone is mad at you is a lot smaller than you think, and their attraction to you is based on their own subset of directionless misery, and comes with a heaping helping of capriciousness. They will leave you at any time.
They aren’t really your ally - they’re aligned with a vague idea that someone is keeping them from beating the drum of their own biases.
Ultimately there’s no reason to be controversial in this way. Being controversial by saying something to stand out in your industry is fine - my own example being the numerous times I’ve said how bad PR people are, which I did specifically because I want to make it better - but being controversial only to get attention and upset people is bad. It’s useless to you. You don’t need to do it.