There’s a German word, schadenfreude, that describes one of our basest, yet most satisfying, emotions. Quite simply, schadenfreude is the pleasure we take in the misfortune of others. (Schaden = damage, and freude = joy). It has no real equivalent in English.
Off-brand Muppets sang about the joys of schadenfreude in the musical "Avenue Q." Lisa Simpson, forever our moral compass, espoused the principle in a classic Simpsons episode, in which Homer delights in the failure of Flanders’ niche retail experiment, The Leftorium.
While you may not recognize the word, you almost certainly know the feeling. It’s watching a flailing Miss Teen USA contestant flub an interview, bingeing on back-to-back Fyre Fest documentaries, or reading about Johnny Depp’s financial woes (particularly after learning he spent $5 million to shoot Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes out of a cannon). Pick your poison; the undeniable truth is it feels good to watch the mighty fall.
Recently the idea of schadenfreude came to mind in the wake of The North Face’s Wikipedia-tampering stunt. In the days following the scandal, I eagerly awaited a response from a competitor outdoor brand. Would Patagonia slyly incorporate #TeamWikipedia into a series of tweets? Would Columbia make a large donation to Wikipedia? Surely another brand would take advantage of this bad press?
No one took the bait, though. The conversation quickly faded into the recesses of my Twitter feed, overshadowed by the next round of cringe-inducing current events. But amid this continuous stream of corporate scandals, gaffes, and epic fails, there’s a brief window of opportunity—a proverbial door left ajar, awaiting any brand that’s brave enough to push it open, capitalize on cultural momentum, and benefit from someone’s public slip up.
This is the idea behind schadenfreude marketing—turning this deeply satisfying, gratifying emotion into an actionable strategy. It’s using another brand’s misfortune for personal gain.
Schadenfreude in action
Outside of the outdoor industry, there are plenty of brands who practice the art of schadenfreude. Think way back to 2017, when United forcibly dragged a passenger off a flight (and, consequently, was endlessly dragged on Twitter). While much of the internet shaming came from the general public, a few rival airlines joined in on the fun. Two Middle Eastern airlines—Royal Jordanian and Qatar Airways—subtly highlighted United’s customer-service woes via pun-filled tweets, effectively getting a free PR boost.