Disclaimer: This is merely a conspiracy theory, and I have no proof that any of these brands did any of these things deliberately. I’m just a marketer thinking out loud.

A wise man once said, “If it barks like a dog, wags a tail like a dog, smells like a dog, then it’s probably Canine.”

Well, maybe no famous wise man actually said these exact words quoted above until I did, but that doesn’t change the wisdom in the statement.

You see, since a few years back when social media virality became a goal for small budget brands looking to deploy guerrilla marketing tactics to promote their products, we’ve seen quite a number of successful stunts and well thought out tactics, as well as flops and outright disastrous attempts at getting cheap publicity.

We’ve also seen a rise of Cause Marketing, a type of CSR, or programme where a company’s promotional campaign has the dual purpose of increasing profitability while bettering society.

Amongst those generally well received Cause Marketing moves, the likes of Nike’s Colin Kapernick endorsement (Just Do It) and the Gillette ad about masculinity (The Best Men Can Be) easily come to mind. In each of these cases, the brands were able to latch on to a pop culture topic, moment, event, trend or happening, and successfully convert the attention, interest or passion of online audiences into brand goodwill, eyeballs, sales and valuable exposure for their brands.

Colin Kapernick Nike ad

Regardless of the divisive opinions of the audience, both brands came out looking like good guys in both cases.

We’ve also had some horrible mishaps.

Nivea (White is Purity), Sony (White is Coming) and Pepsi (Kendall Jenner ad) are clear examples of brands that missed the mark and were severely punished by an online audience who viewed their messages, actions or content as offensive.

These days, some of the most vocal and influential groups and communities online include ‘Black Twitter’ (African American Twitter users), ‘Liberal Twitter’, made up of mostly left-leaning activist-types in the West, including a sub-sets representing LGBTQ groups, Feminists, and various other Minority or disadvantaged groups.

Naturally, these ‘communities’ hold the greatest power on Twitter, a platform that has become the strongest source of breaking news, protests, political movements and driver of cultural trends that spread onto other social platforms and forums, and even further offline on to mainstream media, including terrestrial TV, radio, cable TV, streaming services, and so on.

Beyond the afore named powerful groups, there are also mobs of regular everyday people who may not exactly identify as activists for one community or the other, but are vocal about the things that offend them, and are not shy about fighting that online fight, whenever issues arise. This may appear to be the majority of Twitter accounts — the everyday average user.

Social media offers anonymity, and with anonymity comes the confidence to speak out about what offends you and push back against people who may be more powerful than you, without any fear of repercussions. This is a double edged sword that can lead to good (political movements and social good) or bad results (bullying, shaming and privacy issues).

For brands, this reality has become quite a risk, since a business can quickly lose all goodwill if it does something that is found offensive by any of the powerful, influential groups on social media. This reality would make one think that brands would be careful, to avoid any backlash from Black Twitter, Feminist Twitters, Immigrant Twitter, LGBTQ Twitter, Jewish Twitter, Muslim Twitter, etc.

But is this really [still] the case?

[And here comes my conspiracy theory]

Because, looking back at how increasingly common it has been lately for major, multi-billion dollar brands, who are well equipped with expert consultants and specialists, to release products, ads or communication materials that are deemed offensive or ‘problematic’, I am beginning to think there’s got to be more to this than meets the eye.

You see, this writing started out as an off-the-top marketing trend ‘prediction’ very late in 2018.

At the time, there were already a number of cases of Brands Behaving Badly (BBB) that I could point at. These events got me thinking; why can’t a brand hedge their bets and deliberately stoke outrage online, knowing fully well that with online backlash comes offline attention and publicity, which could be ‘harnessed’ and converted for promotion.

It appears that for brands (including public figures and celebs — like Trump) in this age of stark social divisions, Cancel Culture and Online Outrage, receiving backlash from online ‘mobs’ for offensive acts may no longer be having any real damaging effects on sellability anymore.

[Of course, there’s good research out there on the consequences of brand misconduct on consumer purchase decisions, but hey, hear me out first.

It seems everyone is ‘Teflon Don’ nowadays. Attention is attention — a neutral value which in most cases online appear to have more positive than negative effect on the subject of attention (on the long run).

Think about it. Are these brands and their managers really ignorant? I think not. They seem to know exactly what they are doing. There seems to be a system at work here. And here’s the formula:

Step 1: Pick a struggle. Decide the online group you want to offend and trigger.

Step 2: Creatively design a product, ad, message, action, etc… that goes directly against the agenda of this group. Usually a subject with some historical context.

Step 3: Release the offensive item online, or ‘leak’ it. Innocently.

Step 4: Wait for the backlash.

Step 5: Apologize for the offensive action, and promise to do better.

Step 6: Watch your numbers (including positive and negative media coverage) go up.

Naturally, the audience reaction — online outrage and backlash, happens like this:

Stage 1: Twitter user finds offensive ‘item’ and posts it.

Stage 2: Well known activist within target group with verified handle and +100k followers, Retweets ‘item’ with comment, calling for fire on the erring brand.

Stage 3: 24hours later. Tweet gets 8,000 comments, 200k Retweets and 90k Likes. With everyone calling for the brand to be ‘Canceled’.

Stage 4: Mainstream Media swoops in. CNN, MSNBC, BBC, all feature the story.

Stage 5: Politicians and celebs representing the targeted group post Tweets in support, and appear on late night cable TV shows to discuss the matter. Think pieces and op-Eds are written… etc.

You get the drift.

Now, one would think this type of reaction and backlash does no brand any good, but in 2019, where ratchetness and controversy is a surer path to celebrity than talent and good deeds, maybe brands are finally beginning to believe that online outrage on the long run brings more value in than it robs a brand of.

Some analysts argue that brands keep falling into these situations because of lack of minority representation and diversity in the boardroom during decision making. I generally agree with this POV. But in 2019, I think there’s also some naughtiness at work.

Why else would Gucci release a dress that reminds people of ‘blackface’ (Story went viral during Black History Month too)? Or why would Katy Perry, Prada and Moncler even decide to release products with anything remotely close to ‘blackface’ in imagery? Why would H&M take a photo of a black kid wearing a hoodie with the words ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’ printed on it? Why would Burberry make a hoodie with a noose around the neck, knowing fully well the historical context for black folks in America? Why?

Maybe these are all premeditated, to feed off online outrage?

I mean, why can’t they take the risk of triggering our collective (usually temporary and not really damaging) anger, which keeps the brand’s name topmost on millions of lips and SERPs for several weeks, earns them millions of dollars worth of free media, and increases visitor traffic to their websites for a few more weeks?

If you think this theory is all some nonsense, then you probably didn’t follow the ascendance of Donald Trump to the US presidency. 45 rose to power off the back of outrage, backlash and offence. The more he annoyed folks, the more power he gained. Almost like Black Panther’s suit!

Maybe we can forgive Pepsi for the Kendall Jenner case, assuming that it was an error of judgement, and they had no ulterior motive. But should we keep forgiving all these other brands blatantly offending folks and (it appears) consciously triggering minority groups online, in ways that rouse the anger of social ‘mobs’?

I think not.

To me, this might just be a crazy new trend in marketing, and until the usual targets (or victims), the easily triggered (and historically oppressed) groups (like Black folks), start realizing that it’s possible they are only being played and used as tools in some marketer’s strategic publicity stunt, these things will only continue to happen.

Disclaimer: This is merely a conspiracy theory, and I have no proof that any of these brands did any of these things deliberately. I’m just a marketer thinking out loud.