This week, Burger King found its International Women’s Day campaign under fire after its Burger King U.K. Twitter account began a thread explaining the campaign with the tweet “Women belong in the kitchen.” People who only saw the first tweet were enraged that the brand would choose a day made to honor women to make such a claim. Others were upset that the brand would stoop to using such a condescending and outdated joke to drive eyeballs to its new campaign meant to amplify women. After hours of complaints from consumers, Burger King apologized and deleted the tweet, saying it was “designed to draw attention” to the issue behind the campaign—that only a small percentage of chefs and head chefs are women.
The snafu was one of the major brand blunders of the year so far, and a prime example of the perils of using shock value in social media marketing to grab the attention of social media users, especially when the cause is not a laughing matter.
“The tactic Burger King used was obviously to shake up the internet, and mission accomplished. But where it really stung is that on a day meant to honor women, Burger King put themselves first and the wellness of women somewhere far down below that,” says Lynae Cook, a consultant and contractor who has formerly worked as a social media strategist at Starbucks.
The curse of the algorithm
The truth is that social media has crafted an environment where brands, always seeking to be in front of consumers, are resorting to ways to beat platforms’ algorithms, which fill user feeds based on high engagement and their content history. In other words, a platform prioritizes content that might be alarming, risky or appalling, but starts conversations. A brand posting significant or relevant content to their audience might not fare as well as one that is always putting their spin on a cultural moment or constantly sharing their take on the latest internet meme.
“The fear of being left behind motivates marketers to drive to the edge. More funny, more edgy, more controversial,” says Julius Geis, founder of brand strategy and consulting agency 'Āina Identity Design, which works with brands like Kia, Carlsberg Beer and Burt’s Bees. “Social media algorithms support brands that engage in this type of messaging with higher activity versus brands that say something meaningful to their followers. But fear and insecurity never create anything good.”