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In Our Words: How outrage is used as an advertising tool

Let’s talk about something other than COVID-19 here this week, okay? Let’s talk about the biggest thing impacting the online world this past week.

Let’s talk about something other than COVID-19 here this week, okay?

Let’s talk about the biggest thing impacting the online world this past week. No, it wasn’t a story of corporate corruption, or of one country bombing another country or even the pandemic. It wasn’t any of that.

For some reason, it was a plastic potato.

For those of you who are well-adjusted and don’t spend most of your time angry online, let me explain. Last week, Hasbro, one of the world’s largest toy companies, announced that it would be dropping the pronouns from its Mr. And Mrs. Potato Head toys, simply calling them “Potato Head”. The idea, as announced by the company, was to promote inclusivity.

(Don’t worry, I’m not going to dwell on this long. I have a larger point to make and the potato toys are just... well, an entree.)

A certain group of people online – let’s call them “angry folk” - received Hasbro’s choice with a heavily negative response. Some saw it as an unnecessary change to a toy they’ve known since they were kids – others saw it as political correctness run amok or as another blow to traditonal gender roles, terminology and Western civilization itself.

Except here’s the thing – amongst anybody I know who cares about inclusion, it meant nothing. Nobody really asked for this. Changing the pronouns of an inanimate plastic ball of starch doesn’t fix actual discrimination against people who don’t fit traditional roles. It’s a toy.

The entire point of the change lies in the conversation. Hasbro’s decision to change the toy isn’t based on making social conservatives mad or making themselves look good to a diverse market. It’s a campaign designed to get people talking about and buying Potato Heads.

For people who support it, it’s fine. For people who strongly insist that a toy meant to vaguely resemble a thing you boil for dinner must be either a man or a woman, it’s bad. For everybody else, it’s noise.

Here’s the real question: would we be talking about potato heads right now otherwise? Would I be writing about potato heads otherwise? God no. I thought they were lame decades ago.

Does Hasbro, as a corporate entity, care about being inclusive? Only if it means a bump in sales. Hasbro is a company and companies do not possess the ability to feel things or have political opinions. They aren’t human. Much like any major company, the only goal of Hasbro is to increase its own value.

The conversation itself is the ad and the participants, one and all, are deputized to do Hasbro’s work for them for free.

This latest campaign is a refined version of something called “outrage marketing”. Way back when, this was accomplished by doing things like showing images of a sexual, violent or graphic nature to get you to do something – to buy a brand of jeans or to stop buying cigarettes, for instance. That has changed and now, it’s interactive. Companies have discovered that riling up the “angry folks” can bring a financial benefit.

Do you remember a few years ago, when Nike produced an ad featuring former NFLer Colin Kaepernick – the same player who enraged some people by kneeling during the national anthem as an anti-police brutality protest? The ad saw reactions from people who support Kaepernick’s stand and from the “angry folk”. There were boycotts arranged and some people burned their shoes and jerseys in protest. Some of the “angry folks” predicted Nike would fail and go bankrupt because so many people were angry.

How did it affect Nike in the end? After that ad began airing, Nike’s worldwide sales jumped by 31 per cent and received an estimated $6 billion increase in their estimated brand value – yes, billion with a “B” and yes, an increase.

Nike is a company and, as such a non-human entity, is not primarily interested in anything but increasing their own value. That’s what the ad – and the backlash - ultimately did. You know what word comes up often when people say “boycott Nike” and “I’m burning my Nikes”? You guessed it – “Nike”.

Did it make Nike appear to be a good company? Maybe. The company has still, in recent years, been dogged by allegations of third-world sweatshops and child labour, of alleged poor treatment of Nike-sponsored athletes, of using offshore companies to dodge corporate taxes. That stink doesn’t just go away with an ad.

Not long after that, Gillette released a long-form ad focused on some aspects of toxic masculinity – bullying, harassment, sexism and so on. That video brought the “angry folk” out in droves, as was entirely expected. Boycotts were announced, butts were hurt and angry comments were left behind - including a lot of navel-gazing by opinion writers. God, we’re the worst.

What did that leave Gillette? From the start of 2019 (when the ad aired) to the start of 2020, the company’s brand value jumped by over $300 million. Thanks for playing, “angry folk”. Y’all are quite predictable.

This is an effective tactic and it’s becoming more common every year. Last June, Quaker Oats announced it would be renaming and rebranding Aunt Jemima pancake syrup in an effort to promote racial equality. Yet more angry comments, tweets and the brief stink of a boycott came – and by the end of the summer, parent company PepsiCo’s stock price climbed by almost 12 bucks a share. Keurig coffee machines had a similar spat in 2017 when the company pulled ads from a Fox News show, leading to boycotts and dozens of videos of people smashing their Keurigs – and their shares jumping from $85 each to about $122 each within weeks.

So if you’re looking for a reason why the family Potato Head is now genderless, know this – it’s because it’s supposed to make you react. Big companies aren’t your friends and aren’t trying to make the world better. They exist to separate you from your money. Use that information wisely.

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