How Brands Get the Most Out of Trolls

When bigoted weirdos attack progressive ad campaigns, everybody wins.

I am skeptical of your trollery, as I suspect it is good for my #brand.
I am skeptical of your trollery, as I suspect it is good for my #brand.

Screenshot via KSTP

A few weeks ago, Old Navy found itself in the middle of an ugly story about racism and online thuggery—the kind of kerfuffle that seems seriously off-brand for a company that just wants to sell cheaper-than–Gap basics. It started when the retailer’s official account tweeted the announcement of a 30-percent–off sale:

It was not the first time an Old Navy ad had featured an interracial couple. But this one caught the attention of a few racist trolls, who replied using hashtags like #whitegenocide and #miscegenation.

The backlash-to-the-backlash began almost immediately, with many users tweeting photos of their own interracial families. John McCain’s son posted a photo of himself with his biracial wife, both in military uniforms, and told the haters to “eat it.”

The episode was a natural for outlets that thrive on viral outrage and inspiration. It began with elements of shock and moral superiority: Look at those vile racists! It proceeded to a satisfying action scene: Good people using heartwarming tweets to drown out the ugliness! The happy ending was summed up by the hashtag many used in their tweets: #lovewins. Old Navy apparently didn’t orchestrate the fuss—it wasn’t a full ad campaign, just a photo—but they were happy to take advantage of the attention. “We are a brand with a proud history of championing diversity and inclusion,” Old Navy spokeswoman Debbie Felix said in a statement. “At Old Navy, everyone is welcome.” The sale announcement was retweeted more than 7,000 times, compared to the usual 10 or 20 for other tweets from the account. Jack McCain’s response, which handily included the hashtag #OldNavy, was even more popular.

By now, this is a familiar template: 1. Brand implicitly endorses a mainstream progressive cause. 2. Small band of monsters reacts predictably. 3. Right-thinking Americans rush to embrace and defend the brand. Sometimes the backlash comes from stray jackasses on social media, other times from organizations such as the conservative media watchdog organization One Million Moms, whose recent efforts have included protesting Campbell’s Soup and Chobani ads for featuring gay couples. No matter how the fracas plays out, everybody wins in the end: The trolls get attention, responders get the warm and fuzzy pleasure of combating hate, and the brand comes out looking like a crusader for justice.

When racists objected to a charming 2013 Cheerios ad featuring a mixed-race family, the brand closed the comment section on YouTube because some reactions were so ugly. But the hubbub was unquestionably a boost for the brand. A marketing firm that analyzed the campaign’s performance online found that overall online exposure to Cheerios rose 77 percent in the wake of the backlash, and that Cheerios trounced rivals like Wheaties and Rice Krispies in views on YouTube, social media, and elsewhere online. They ended up producing a Super Bowl ad featuring the same actors, which prompted a whole new round of positive press.

When I contacted a Cheerios representative, she told me that they did not anticipate any backlash, but declined to say much more about how they devised the campaign, prepared for negative reactions, and orchestrated their response. In answering six questions by email, the rep used the sentence “There are many kinds of families and we celebrate them all” five times. Let the record show that there are many kinds of families and Cheerios celebrates them all.

The Cheerios brouhaha was three years ago, but it strains credulity to think that admakers today don’t prepare to respond to and capitalize on the trollish attacks on their gently progressive campaigns. In 2014, Honey Maid launched a clever campaign titled “This is Wholesome” that depicted families with two dads, an interracial military family, and so on. “No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will,” the tagline read. Later installments featured an “#NotBroken” blended family, and, this spring, a Muslim family bonding with their initially wary non-Muslim neighbors.

Jason Levine, vice president of biscuit equity in North America for Mondelez International, which owns Honey Maid, told me by email that Honey Maid and its lead creative agency, Droga5 New York, worked with experts in the LGBTQ community (among others) in order to hone their messages. The team began planning its “post-launch response” weeks before the campaign first appeared. They anticipated a variety of reactions, including vocal critics online, and prepped their social media team. They also contacted the design studio INDO before the launch; INDO produced a video in which paper printouts of the negative responses are used to spell out the word “Love.” The media (including Slate) covered the video as a heartwarming response to the haters—which it was, of course, even if it was conceived in advance.

It’s easy to feel some skepticism about the ways brands are monetizing and even amplifying these fringe online outbursts. If the standard advice is not to feed the trolls, then why throw Cheerios and graham crackers at them? But such cynicism would gloss over a startling fact: It’s profitable to endorse interracial marriage, and interfaith friendship, and families headed by same-sex couples. Think how radical it is that mainstream advertising—a bastion of conservatism in the old, cautious sense—not only isn’t shying away from inclusion and diversity, but is using those values to sell widgets.