Out of Scope Issue 09: Hell, April Fool’s, and Wild Tweets
This week’s non-required thinking on reputation, business, and culture
This week, we look at Amazon’s ham-handed social media strategy, the coming branding crisis in China, follow Lil Nas X on his journey to hell and back, examine LinkedIn’s take on parenting and working from home, take a tour of Volkswagen's prank gone awry, and strongly recommend that you take a look at some adorable and well-marketed products for hedgehogs.
📡 ON OUR RADAR
Western brands are once again having a tough time of it in China, this time over the Chinese government’s selection of their homegrown cotton industry as a locus of national pride. Customer boycotts and social media pile-ons in China, and controversies in the West over human rights violations in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, have made it impossible for Western brands, especially fashion houses, to do business on either side of the Pacific and avoid politics. For those managing corporate reputation, it’s a tangled skein indeed..
Amazon’s Twitter usage has been off the walls lately. It started when Amazon News (a verified account) sent a barrage of bizarre tweets slamming Rep. Mark Pocan, then Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Then, users — or, more likely, bots — claiming to be employees of Amazon started posting anti-union messages, as if to dissuade the real Amazon employees from voting to unionize. While we love a good organic social strategy, we might recommend something a little less obvious!
LinkedIn added "stay-at-home mom/dad” as resume options to help destigmatize gaps in employment. One out of every five parents decide to stay at home, but they’re already behind the ball if/when they decide to go back to work. Applicants with gaps in their resumes have a 45% lower chance of getting an interview. As more and more people try to get back into the workforce, it’s nice to see LinkedIn using its platform to give users with some extra challenges a boost.
For the first time ever, The White House issued a presidential proclamation in recognition of International Transgender Day of Visibility. Through the last presidency’s erratic POV on this topic, it was corporations who took on the task of sending a consistent message normalizing and recognizing transgender identity. It’s interesting to see Washington play catch up to corporations. We wonder what other issues might follow the same pattern.
Possibly making “wow, that Tweet did not age well” history, Rep. Matt Gaetz asked for any future scandals he’s involved in to be referred to as “GaetzGate” just one week ago. Fast forward a few days and he’s under investigation for possible sex trafficking for an alleged relationship with a 17-year old, among other things. In denying the allegations, he refers to the minor as a “woman,” subtly signaling his take on the morality of the issue - a common linguistic hockey puck when people are attempting to age up or down a person in the eyes of the public (and a possible jury). Plus, if you’re making a controversialist like Tucker Carlson uncomfortable with your handling of this issue, you know you’re doing something very wrong.
This past year has shown us that there’s a very different expectation for corporate activism today, and many are calling on companies to do more than issue statements. A group of 72 Black executives is calling on companies to stand up against restrictive voting laws being passed by Republicans nationwide in at least 43 states. Recently, many activists have stated that companies are talking the talk, but not walking the walk when it comes to supporting Black employees. Rallying to their support, Stacey Abrams penned this piece advising companies: “Corporations should leave behind tepid statements of self-congratulations for turning horrific intent into terrible reality.”
🏆 REPUTATION FAIL OF THE WEEK: VW Voltswagen ⚡️
An April Fool’s Day joke that broke the first rule of April Fool’s (the joke has to happen on April 1), Volkswagen “rebranded” to Voltswagen US earlier this week to celebrate their commitment to a future powered by electric vehicles.
VW issued a press release with the name change but took their time in fessing up to the joke - long enough for the press and social media to generate some serious buzz. Journalists were understandably not pleased - as the AP reports, “Several news organizations, including The Associated Press, USA Today, CNBC and The Washington Post, had reported the original press release as real news, some after being assured specifically that it was no joke.”
After the year we’ve all had (and perhaps the four years before that), it’s no surprise that journalists are a bit exhausted and traumatized by misinformation and disinformation from authoritative sources. Doubling down on things that aren’t true, especially about something so big as a name change, would seem to go against the social contract the press and public relations have long had in place.
Lora Kolodny @lorakolodnyVolkswagen's name change of U.S. 'Voltswagen' operations was April Fool's marketing prank, source says https://t.co/UcmnIMNaDZ by @MikeWayland @CNBC
While it was a joke, and probably all in good fun, we can’t help but see this in the context of VW’s earlier emissions scandal, in which they were - get this - called out for lying about the eco-friendliness of their engines.
Now, the VW US lead is taking responsibility for the botched joke and any trust that needs to be rebuilt as a result. The April Fool’s prank might have had good intentions, but it pushed brand trust in the wrong direction. And given the brand’s history, if we had been in the room advising the campaign, we’d have advised against it.
In contrast, a false brand name change that went a bit better? IHOP attempting to convince the world that “burgers” would be replacing pancakes - a bit more visibly tongue-in-cheek.
It’s important for civil society that we can all laugh at each other and ourselves. Humor is a great way out of the pressure-cooker environment that has been the public discourse for the last year, but only if it's in good taste.
💡ON OUR MINDS
A WORLD WITHOUT THE FRONT PAGE?
Local newspapers have been declining for about fifty years, but the next decade may finally witness their extinction, as evidenced by this poignant and attention-grabbing stunt from Kansas City’s Northeast News.
The newsroom there, faced with declining advertising revenue, decided to publish a blank front page, visualizing for their readers what a future without the newsroom might look like.
Cue Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451: “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them. And then the Government, seeing how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach, circled the situation with your fire-eaters.” Sounds a lot like a world with only social media to us.
All is not lost, though, as the stunt seems to have worked, causing a temporary boost in donations and subscriptions. Let’s hope other local papers follow suit in alerting their subscribers to the danger.
At HL, with some former and current journalists in our midst, we know the party for communicators lasts only as long as there are journalists to hear us out, keep us honest, and (ahem) give our clients that occasional boost of third-party credibility. Long live local news!
Picture an assistant. Did they look like this? (We’re guessing no - and we didn’t imagine that either!)
For at least the last century, the stereotypical assistant has been a woman, and the advent of digital assistants like Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, and so on haven’t helped remedy that. (Star Trek even set the stage for computer assistants as women!)
But for the first time since 2011, Siri won’t default to a feminine voice upon device set up in the US, a first step in remedying what many have called out as a perpetuation of gender stereotypes for artificial intelligence (one human attribute that AI won’t have is gender or gender identity).
It remains to be seen whether people will choose one of the other male-coded voices in the future - and with Apple’s big push for privacy, we’re wondering if we’ll ever see the data on those decisions.
WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH LIL NAS X?
The video was launched alongside an exclusive 666-shoe collaboration with MSCHF, featuring a single drop of human blood in each pair. Nike was not pleased with the copyright infringement (or the calls for boycotting the brand from conservatives) and has blocked sales of the shoes in court.
This ain’t his first rodeo… Before Lil Nas became a rhinestone-studded cowboy, he started out on Twitter as @NasMaraj, a Nikki Minaj fan account. He spent most of his teenage years curating memes and gaining popularity.
Late 2018 ushered in the “YeeHaw Agenda”, a strangely widespread resurgence of cowboy culture. Nas, being a Twitter memelord himself, uploaded about a hundred short videos, all with his song “Old Town Road” layered on top of existing memes. The song skyrocketed to #1, topping the charts for a whopping 19 weeks.
Whatever you think about the video or the shoes, we have to admit the clapbacks on social are working - with a surprising amount of marketing savvy for a 21-year old. He is yet more proof that winning Twitter can launch a real-world career.
We’ll leave you with this C.S. Lewis quote from The Screwtape Letters: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”
We’ll see you here next week! 👋
The fine print:
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