How Brands Should React to Gamergate: Don't

Like Most Political, Cultural Battles, Responding Is a Lose-Lose Situation

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Here is the most crucial thing a marketer needs to know about so-called Gamergate.

"You cannot win. This is a lose-lose situation."

That's according to one advertiser who has been caught up in an ongoing fiasco that's pitted various factions of gamers against one another, and against publishers and advertisers.

Even after numerous thousand-word explainers, Gamergate is no easier to explain. The now amorphous movement was formed by a group of gamers demanding better ethics in video game journalism (the bad journalism is the "gate" part) but was co-opted by a group hunting for any slight and quick to berate and threaten critics with anything from rape and murder to the exposure of private information. Gamergaters have attacked people for critiquing the treatment of women in video games, denouncing Gamergate and simply making fun of it. Some journalists, gamers and celebrities (including Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day), meanwhile, have fought back.

If it sounds like the sort of cultural or political war that marketers typically stay away from, that's exactly what it is. But both Adobe and Intel were caught up in it when they were called out by these Gamergaters for advertising on sites critical of aspects of gamer culture and gave in to their demands before fully understanding the situation.

Marketers should take note that Kraft, Verizon and Best Buy are also being targeted by Gamergate. But they haven't made the news so far because they've stayed the course.

Further, it's unlikely that either Intel or Adobe are going to take hits to their bottom lines.

Gawker Media and other publishers, on the other hand, might not be so lucky.

Even if Gamergater calls for advertiser boycotts don't push marketers to withdraw ads, marketers are still seeing their in-boxes and phones exploding with rage. And with budget-planning season for 2015 underway, those publishers causing advertisers grief could easily be left off plans.

"Advertisers don't know what the fuck this is," said one publishing sales executive.

Gawker and Gamergate
Gawker's run in with Gamergate started when the movement took aim at the ethics of its gaming site, Kotaku, and got out of hand when Sam Biddle, a reporter at Gawker site Valleywag, tweeted these two statemements aimed at the members of Gamergate:

The tweets infuriated a segment of the movement which declared war on Gawker by going after its advertisers.

A campaign called Operation Disrespectful Nod, aimed at getting advertisers to stop running ads with publications Gamergate objected to, was already in motion when Mr. Biddle posted his tweets. And, once they went up, the Gamergate movement went into overdrive trying to reach Gawker's advertisers.

A document Gawker Editor Max Read said belongs to Gamergate instructed its members to strike at Gawker's advertisers. In addition to displaying contact information of Gawker's advertisers, the document contained a form letter and encouraged users to send versions of it to the contacts.

"Your company is listed as an advertising affiliate with Gawker," the letter read. "In light of Mr. Biddle's comments, and Mr. Read's support of said comments, I urge you to withdraw said advertising support from Gawker and all its affiliates."

"Gawker's biggest advertiser is LL Bean," said another Gamergate document. "We should be hitting them as much as possible."

A number of Gawker's advertising clients emailed the site asking why their CMOs were being inundated with emails urging them to pull their ads from the site, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Adobe, listed in the document, asked Gawker to remove its logo from Gawker's "partners" page following Gamergate pressure. The company then posted a tweet condemning bullying in general, which read: "We are vehemently opposed to bullying of any kind and would never support any group that bullies."

Adobe's actions were seen as siding with the vile elements of Gamergate, though. The company's position generated rage almost immediately.

And it also put the marketer in Gawker's crosshairs. Despite Gamergate costing the site thousands of dollars, with the potential to "lose thousands more, if not millions," according to Mr. Read, the Gawker editor went on a rant of his own, taking aim at Gamergate and the advertisers capitulating to it.

"Releasing into the world a statement as vacuous as Adobe's tweet, or as inane as Intel's 'apology,' demonstrates not that those brands stand against something (how else can anyone possibly feel about bullying?) but that they stand for nothing," he said.

When asked for comment, an Adobe spokesman pointed Ad Age to its tweet and said: "We aren't commenting on this topic beyond the @Adobe tweet/statement."

Not just Adobe

Intel was the first brand involved in the controversy after pulling its advertising from the website Gamasutra after Gamergate took issue with an opinion piece by a site editor critiquing gamer culture. (Gamasutra confirmed the withdrawal Oct. 1.)

Like Adobe, Intel was harshly critcized for "siding" with Gamergate. Intel went on to post an apology on its website. "Intel does not support any organization or movement that discriminates against women," the statement said. "We apologize and we are deeply sorry if we offended anyone."

This is the conundrum brands are in: Every Gamergate gripe -- even if legitimate -- will be linked to the vile elements of the group. So giving in is seen as siding with the worst elements of it.

So far, those not responding are in better shape than those who have.

--Michael Sebastian contributed reporting to this article