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Sonja-gate: Offending social comments can pay off big

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A novel Twitter experiment by the country of Sweden is sparking controversy and a general consensus that the campaign is a disaster. I'm not so sure. Since December the country's tourism arm has been running a promotion that gives individual Swedes control of the @Sweden Twitter account for a week. The promotion is intended to introduce people to the diversity of Sweden's population, and it certainly has done that. The sponsor has placed few restrictions on what the temporary account holders can say, and topics have run the gamut, ranging from food to politics to sex. Last week, however, the experiment took a controversial turn when 27-year-old Sonja Abrahamsson posted some remarks about Jews that many people found objectionable. “In nazi German they even had to sew stars on their sleeves. If they didn't, they could never now who was a jew and who was not a jew,” she wrote last Tuesday afternoon. Media coverage was swift and mostly negative. “Sweden's Twitter experiment goes off the rails,” headlined the Sydney Morning Herald. “Sweden Twitter campaign marred by "Jew' comments,” remarked the BBC. Abrahamsson issued a half-hearted apology, but the government allowed her to finish out her one-week term and is going ahead with the campaign. There's good reason for that. @Sweden's follower count more than doubled in a week, from about 31,000 the day the controversy erupted to more than 63,000 today. The website traffic-tracking service Alexa documented a tenfold jump in daily reach for curatorsofsweden.com. The Atlantic was one of the few media outlets to note this, headlining its analysis, “Mathematically, @Sweden Is a Rip-roaring Success.” No brand wants to align itself with anti-Semitism—and Sweden's example is hardly a case of textbook marketing—but you can't argue with the results. The fact is that a whole lot more people are talking about the country today than a week ago, and a few of them are probably looking at Sweden as a vacation destination for the first time. I doubt that one or two anti-Semitic tweets out of the 20,000 that have been posted so far are going to turn Sweden into a haven for hate groups. The controversy has created a bounty of awareness, which is what the campaign was all about in the first place. Marketers spend a lot of time worrying about how to limit negative perceptions of their brand and products, but it turns out that a little controversy can actually be just what the doctor ordered in some situations. Six years ago General Motors ran a consumer-generated advertising campaign called “Chevy Apprentice” that was hijacked by environmentalists who used the video tools GM provided to blast the company's environmental record. The campaign was widely perceived to be a disaster, but from a brand awareness and sales perspective it was a home run. It turns out the criticism from a group that would never consider buying the SUV in the first place wasn't a problem. And there's new statistical evidence that bad isn''t necessarily bad. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and Stanford University recently analyzed sales of 250 books reviewed in The New York Times. While they found that negative reviews of books by established authors correlated with a 15% decline in sales, bad reviews of little-known authors actually caused sales to rise by an average of 45%. After one particularly scathing review appeared, sales more than quadrupled. “Our analysis showed that by making consumers aware of a book they would otherwise not know about, even the harshest review can be a boon,” wrote Wharton's Jonah Berger in the Harvard Business Review. Oscar Wilde famously said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” In today's media-saturated world, those words are truer than ever.
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