27 Apr 2017
How worried should you be about outrage culture

How Worried Should You Be About Outrage Culture?

Outrage culture. United Airlines is a global horror story for literally bumping a paying passenger to fly its staff. Pepsi suggests that what the protest movement needs is a white saviour and caffeinated soda. Coopers bungles the same-sex marriage debate.

It seems like every other week there are blown gaskets over something a brand says or done. But, assuming you are not the sort of company that physically assaults customers, how worried do you need to be that next week it will be your turn?

Is Outrage Culture Actually a Thing?

Before we get into that, it’s worth delving deeper than “Oh people get upset about every little thing these days” and “It’s political correctness gone mad, I tells ya”. Ironically, for a piece about outrage culture, I don’t believe it’s A Thing. Or more accurately, there’s a misunderstanding in the signal to noise ratio of actual genuine, hand-on-heart outrage.

People Have Monetised Outrage

By now you’ve probably heard of the great Starbucks Christmas Cup Controversy of 2015. People got mad because Starbucks took the Christmas out of Christmas cups. This is disgusting because ordering an overpriced Unicorn Frappuccino without acknowledging the reason for the season makes baby Jesus cry.

Except that’s not what happened. Starbucks never put “Christmas” or anything remotely Christian on its seasonal cups. It always paints with a palette of Generic Winter Motifs. The reason for the bunched panties outbreak is that someone wanted to make money.

It started with an Evangelistic social media personality named Josh Feuerstein, whose claims to fame include being described as an “entrepreneurial bigot” on CNN. At the time, he sold DVDs of himself yelling angry things and charged monthly fees for a vaguely-defined web partnership.

Like shock jocks, daytime talk show hosts and 24-hour news channel commentators before him, he knew there’s gold in anger. So he ranted about Starbucks, Christmas and err, evolution in a video. A few Evangelical Christians shared it because it buys into the persecuted religion narrative. Lots of people shared it to say it was dumb, including many Christians saying they were fine, really.

That particular storm in a paper cup generated over 17 million views for Feuerstein, proving there’s profit in poking bears.

Maybe People Are Just Asking Questions.

Normally, when people say they’re “just asking questions” I want to go full United Airlines on them. It’s not, as they seem to think, a “Get-Out-Of-Jail” free card excusing them from defending questionable opinions. As in “I’m not saying that the moon landing is fake because they inject autism into fluoridated mercury as mind-control for the Illuminati, I’m just asking questions”.

But the nature of what’s acceptable changes over time. I have a deeply visceral reaction every time I hear the nursery rhyme Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo. This is because, despite not being 180 years old, I still managed to be alive at a time when kids were taught to catch things other than a tiger by the toe. Four-year-olds using racial slurs, what’s more adorable?

But in the period between when something is OK and not OK, there are discussions around the parameters. Maybe people are not in fact “outraged” but questioning whether it’s still the right thing to do.

Or They Are Amused

It’s fun to make fun of things It says so right in the name, you are making fun. I make fun of a lot of things online. Even things I love dearly, such as Fast and Furious movies or my kids. A lot of time an “outrage” gets social media legs because it is a meme-worthy joke fountain. Everyone enjoys a good old-fashioned Battle of Quips.

I mean, I can’t say I have any particularly strong feelings about the Juicero, the $US400 high-tech cold press juice machine that managed to get $US120 million in venture capital funding before people noticed you could get the same results by squeezing the custom juice bags with their hands. But it makes for some funny jokes.

The Media Bears a Lot of the Blame, As Usual

The underlying theme of all the previous points is that someone is boxing up a range of reactions and labelling it outrage whether it is or not. And that someone is the media. Journalism is often a matter of formula, right down to the skateboarding dog story at the end of the news bulletin.

The formula around outrage boils down to “collect a bunch of things people are talking about on Twitter, say these people are outraged about it. Write a follow-up story about how these outraged people are overreacting. Write another follow-up story talking about how everyone is so touchy these days.”

This is a couple of years old now, but Parker Molloy wrote a great piece on how her social media eye roll about the dumb name of a shade of lipstick shade got put through the manufactured outrage mill to see it in action.

So, What Does This Mean For Your Brand?

Right, so if outrage culture is mostly hot air, what does this mean should some innocent piece of content you created start generating a donnybrook, kerfuffle or, worst of all, a brouhaha? The first step is to figure out whether it is one, or just one person sounding off in an echo chamber or media beat-up. Given the frequency with which these things blow-up and then blow over, it might just not be worth giving it oxygen.

Depending on the situation, you could always poke fun at the media beat-up itself, because if there’s one thing people enjoy more than piling on a brand, it’s piling on the media. The trick here is to make sure you are kicking up _ the powerful media with a bee in its bonnet _ and not down, which is why Starbucks is never going to mock anyone over the Christmas cups. Besides, if the criticism is silly enough, other people, maybe even Weird Al, will do that for you.

You also need to consider whether they have a point and for this you may need to get an external perspective outside. Often, it’s hard to see because you’re so immersed in the conversation.

You Did It, Own It

If you have made a misstep, then it’s time for an apology. Not an “arse-covering, sorry, not sorry, it-takes-three-attempts-at-an-apology that only prolongs the story about how terrible you are” apology. A “we’re sorry, we are investigating, we don’t want it to happen again” apology. Even though we know that apologies go a long way. In medicine, hospitals that apologise for mistakes reduce malpractice costs, but far too many brands take defensiveness as a first option.

And try not to make anyone bleed.

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