An extensive advertising campaign on the London Underground sparked a minor riot on social media when it went up in mid April, with the Twitterati up in arms about its ‘body-shaming’ approach to flogging diet supplements. It has been branded as sexist and insulting and a whole lot more less repeatable adjectives. As social media crises go, it’s a pretty big deal.
And yet…does it or should it even care?
In an excellent analysis of the storm, news website Breitbart reports that the ad campaign has resulted in 20,000 new customers and revenue in excess of £1 million in less than a week. Which is a rather astounding return on a £250,000 investment.
All the social justice campaigners and trolls have done by voicing their anger and sharing the Protein World ad over and over and over again is to create more reach and more sales for the company.
Doesn’t sound much like a crisis to me.
As someone who’s been watching the furore from a distance, I can say that the way Protein World has handled the situation has been at times jaw-droppingly awful and at times, arguably at least, admirable.
Where Protein World Went Wrong
As tends to happen, the original Twitter storm didn’t take long to hit the mainstream media, and a Google search for “protein world” now returns nearly 1.4 million results.
What Protein World did very wrong when it started to receive negativity was to ignore it. It was happy to amplify the good stuff, but just blatantly ignored anyone criticising the ad and continued to talk as if nothing was happening. This had the effect of winding people up further.
This advert pretty much sums up everything that I despise about how we treat and value women’s bodies. pic.twitter.com/PBZNyn8qop
— Hannah Atkinson (@hatkinson_) April 12, 2015
— Blaise Grimes-Viort (@blaisegv) April 16, 2015
And then it went a step further and started to actually delete comments from its Facebook Page, reply to sarcastic tweets with generic sales messages and block critical users on Twitter. CEO Arjun Seth took to Twitter in defence of its approach calling people “terrorists” and coming across as nothing more than smug and arrogant in a series of now-deleted messages.
At this stage, this was a great case study in exactly how not to handle a social media crisis. This week I’ve been working with Polpeo, running some crisis workshops at PR Week’s PR360 conference using its superb social media crisis simulation software. Pretty much everything we told the delegates not to do, Protein World did.
The Fight Back
But then something changed. Protein World took a stand against what Head of Global Marketing Strategy Richard Stavely called “this bullshit”. With the confidence that its campaign was producing results, it decided to stand up to the trolls and to defend itself. Which is a dangerous and brave but, I think, admirable thing to do. “What’s the point in pulling a campaign when you know you’re in the right?”, questions Staveley.
Whether you think Protein World is ‘in the right’ is a different issue. And with the ASA having today banned the ad and launched a probe into social responsibility after numerous complaints, it’s very hard to agree with that particular point.
But there’s little doubt that the social media crisis has been fuelled as much by mindless herd mentality and trolling as by intelligent, reasoned argument. Other brands have even got in on the action with their own responses.
I’d have to question how many of the 65,000 people who signed a change.org petition to get the ad banned are genuinely, truly emotionally upset by an image of a slender model in a yellow bikini? And how many are just jumping on the latest bandwagon and will have forgotten it within a week?
The way this issue has been playing out on social media is fairly typical. There is no doubt whatsoever that Protein World could have handled it a lot better than it has, or that as an organisation it seems to be pretty reprehensible. But at the same time, among all the vitriol, negative publicity and ASA involvement, I can’t help but look at that figure of £1 million revenue.
Social media crisis? What social media crisis?