Last week, Nutella launched a campaign in France called “Say It With Nutella.” This campaign did not, as I’d hoped, involve putting Nutella in frosting pens and letting people scrawl notes on toast with it. Rather, Nutella invited fans to visit a website on which they could enter personalized messages and see them plastered on pictures of Nutella jars, which they could then share on social media.
This might not have been anything but an annoyance for puerile trolls if enterprising programmers hadn’t gone looking through the source code and found the (extremely comprehensive) list of banned words. And to the extent that people are talking about this campaign, it’s because not all of those banned words were scatological—some were political. The French words for diabetes, obese, bisphenol, phthalates, Indonesia, palm oil, and orangutan were all banned. (Palm oil—huile de palme in French—is an ingredient in Nutella whose harvest threatens the natural habitats of orangutans in Indonesia; phthalates and bisphenols are endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonly found in plastic packaging.) And then there were a few head-scratchers on the blacklist: lesbian, Jewish, and Muslim were also disallowed by the “Say It With Nutella” algorithm.
You might think from the above that Nutella’s attempt at controlling the messages sent via its marketing website was haphazard and sloppy. Au contraire—if you spend some time looking at the source code, you’ll find that whoever was behind the list did a truly impressive job of anticipating all the possible offensive things creative jokesters might want to say. The list of banned words includes misspellings and variations of enculer (to fuck), gros-cul (fat ass), mauvais (bad), maxiprout (megafart, roughly), and pedobear (you know that one). Then there were the creative portmanteaus that Nutella prepared itself for, including cacatella, anusella, and bitella. (Bite is French slang for penis.) I would like to offer a hearty congratulations to the marketing intern charged with creating this list: You did a really good job.
Unfortunately, it was never going to be good enough. The Internet will always find ways to undermine viral marketing efforts, despite brands’ best efforts to thwart them. Just ask Virginie Ballet of Libération, who quickly came up with a list of permissible synonyms for Nutella’s banned words, like boudin fécal (fecal sausage) instead of caca. Or, for that matter, ask Max Read of Gawker, who last month responded to a Coca-Cola campaign that turned tweets into cute cartoons with passages from Mein Kampf. Online misbehavior is a like a resilient bacteria that evolves more quickly than corporate entities can stamp it out.
And brands that want consumers to actively participate in their viral marketing strategies need to accept that some people will use their tools for evil instead of good. (Or, if you’re a Marxist, good instead of evil.) Nutella can either engage consumers by giving them the freedom to have fun with “Say It With Nutella,” or it can control the content of the messages appearing on virtual Nutella jars—but it can’t do both at the same time. For now, I’m sorry to report, Nutella has opted for the latter. After the list of banned words came out, the brand changed the website so that now you can only put a list of pre-approved words and phrases—words like “ciao,” “nice,” and “best friend.” They’ve learned their lesson. In a GIF they tweeted out (along with a call to “RT if you tried to get around the blocked words on #sayitwithnutella”), they’ve written a new message on their jars: “Our imagination will never be as good as yours.”