What You Can Learn From the Social Media Crisis That Wasn't

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This is only a hamburger.
This is only a hamburger. Credit: Courtesy McDonald's

As the editor of advertising age, I don't get to do as much actual editing as I'd like to do. While I'm stuck in meetings and dealing with budgets, the other folks are having all the fun. So I was pretty excited last week when I overheard some discussion on headlining a Lowdown item and I was able to contribute the following: "Lowdown: Dehydrated Vagina Strikes Again in Vagisil Spot."

If I may take a moment to brag, as headlines go that's close to ideal. It's catchy, it's funny and it describes what's going on in the story. In this particular case, the Vagisil brand had released an online video that discusses a very sensitive subject in a very funny manner.

It was also a case of a headline working well as a tweet. It was sure to take off in social media.

And it did.

But for all the wrong reasons.

Lowdown, you see, is a midweek grab bag of items, a digest of news nuggets and information that we think are interesting or important, but don't have the time or resources to give the full story treatment. And one of the other items in last week's Lowdown was about the death of Michael Delligatti, the inventor of McDonald's Big Mac. For that particular section, we used a photo of a Big Mac.

I'm not going to bore you with the technical details, but when a tweet gets sucked into SocialFlow from our CMS, the default setting selects the largest picture. In the body of the story, the Vagisil spot was a video, not a static image, so I'll give you one guess what photo ended up accompanying the tweet.

That's right. A tweet reading "Dehydrated vagina strikes again in Vagisil spot" sat right above a very large photo of a Big Mac.

It was the second rainy day in a row here in New York, and when we first noticed the misplaced image, we literally laughed out loud. Then we thought, "Oh boy. Here we go. Social media storm of the century."

I decided not to take it down. Why? One, this is social media. It was already out there and I knew with 100% certainty that someone had already grabbed a shot of it. It's what I would have done. Hiding it would have just fed the beast. "What is Ad Age trying to hide?" (I'm not such a glutton for punishment that I'm going to embed it here again. Besides, you can find it easily enough.) Two, it wasn't really hurtful or offensive. If anyone looked bad, it was us. Three, again, this is social media. Despite the intensity of tweet storms, despite it feeling like the world is ending, these things pass relatively fast. Four, 2016 has sucked for a lot of people, and it seemed like our faux pas was actually bringing some sort of joy into the world.

In fact, one person called it the "cure" for 2016.

So instead of pulling it down, I tweeted from the official Ad Age account: "We realize the tweet about the Vagisil ad pulled in the wrong image. Enjoy the laugh at our expense."

After that, I followed along on Twitter to see the responses. Some seemed to come from extremely literal people who only read headlines, never click on links and, as one would expect from such people, were confused. There were also a lot of jokes—from both men and women, thankfully. "Mine looks totally different," said one. Many of them included the phrase "special sauce." Many others were so raunchy they can't be repeated here. Others just pointed at the tweet and laughed: "If there is a Twitter Hall of Fame, this tweet better be included." Gizmodo wrote a post about it, saying "This Might Be in the Top 5 or Even Top 10 Tweets of All Time." (The writer called us a blog, but I'll let that slide.)

We even earned points for taking it in stride and not freaking out.

And by the time I'd returned home that evening, it was all forgotten.

It did not turn into an all-caps social media crisis.

That's not to say some folks weren't implying it might turn into one.

Someone informed us twice that "this has been up for an hour," as if trying to save us from imminent demise. Another wrote "Predicting a social-media opening at @adage in 3…2…" A handful of others suggested someone would or should be fired over this. And someone went so far as to say that Ad Age would be getting an earful from McDonald's PR.

No one was fired over it. No one would have been fired over it. And McDonald's apparently had better things to do than call us over an errant tweet. (And McD's feelings about the tweet would have been irrelevant anyway. That's not how this works. That's not how any of this works.)

Those reactions didn't so much anger me as make me tired. I'm tired of social media outrage. It's something I've been cautioning brands about for as long as social media has been around. Not that they need to be careful never to cause social media outrage, but rather that they shouldn't overreact to it. Somewhere in the world, someone is always mad. In the olden days, these people had to grouse to their spouses, complain to their kids or corner someone at the office watercooler. In the olden days, these people were also unable to easily connect with like-minded outraged folk. These days, it's all too easy. They hook up on social media, and it isn't long before we have a howling chorus of anger over the slightest thing.

Hell, I'd argue that political correctness hasn't gotten worse over the last three decades, it's just gotten more organized, more cohesive and therefore louder. What was once a well-meaning, if slightly annoying, academic phenomenon that kept mostly to campuses has escaped into the wider world. On top of this, the folks who say they hate political correctness have internalized its lessons, i.e., take offense at everything, lead with emotion over logic and play the victim card.

Look no further than the kerfuffle involving Breitbart and Kellogg. Kellogg decided to pull its ads, so the supposedly anti-PC, pro-free-speech legions of Breitbart readers dusted off their pitchforks and torches. And …

And nothing. Kellogg's business is likely not going to be hurt by any of it.

If there's one thing less effective than an actual mob, it's a virtual mob.

It's something for marketers, and humans in general, to keep in mind. A tweet is not the same thing as an action. A hashtag in support of Standing Rock doesn't actually do anything for the people gathered there. A tweet from Donald Trump isn't the same thing as a policy statement or a bill. (I suspect he knows that and knows how to leverage the knee-jerk outrage to his advantage, but that's another topic.)

Words do matter, sure. But getting outraged over every little thing is not only exhausting, it's childish and lessens the impact of actual outrage. If we're all outraged all the time, when something is truly outrageous, no one cares. It's the equivalent of crying wolf.

And a last word of advice for marketers. Don't do anything offensive or hurtful. Don't say anything offensive or hurtful on social media. And if you do do something stupid, especially if it's an accident, sit tight and give it a chance to blow over.

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