Creatively Corporate

Can Public “Outrage” Stifle Creativity Among Communicators?

Can Public “Outrage” Stifle Creativity Among Communicators?


Cheerios RIP

In case you missed it, last week, shortly after the passing of Prince, General Mills’s Cheerios brand tweeted a graphic that contained the words “rest in peace” against a purple background in a gesture of homage to the great musician. The “i” in “in” was dotted with a Cheerio, and this sent many of Prince’s fans into a tailspin, accusing the cereal’s marketers of being insensitive and using a tragedy to sell their product.

I have a few thoughts on the tweet and the potential implications it might have on the willingness of corporate communicators – internal and external – to be more creative in their work. These thoughts are not impressively organized, so forgive the sort of rough-shod style.

We Live In a Hyper-Sensitive Society
On the reaction to the tweet itself, I really feel people should take a proverbial chill pill. Unfortunately, our country is becoming a place in which being offended has become a national pastime. There is a healthy portion of the population that seems to be on a constant look-out for things by which to be insulted.

What Was the Motivation?
It’s important to think of the intent behind something like this. Does anyone truly think Cheerios meant to exploit the death or Prince in order to move product or make light of the tragedy? They are Cheerios, and the inclusion of the cereal in the graphic was (to me) clearly a sign that they wanted people to recognize that it was their company that was remembering the artist. They want to be current, and they want to show that they’re in tune with what’s going on in the world. The unfortunate tragedy was a chance to reach out to the public and say, “We share this moment of sadness with you.” As with any PR opportunity, they thought that this would put them in a good light, and that a positive reaction would have benefits later on when customers are in the store shopping for cereal. But was the inspiration behind the post to make light of a death? I can’t believe it was.

Leadership Needs to Buy In
Probably the most important asset corporate communicators can have is the trust, support, and judgment of leadership. There has to be buy-in with a campaign, and in this instance, the inclusion of a brand image in a graphic. If an organization wants to win the attention of the audience in an ever-expanding field of competition, then its executives need to be prepared for the fact that there is always going to be someone who will get offended by a marketing, PR, or even internal communication.

That being said, there has to be some kind of judgment, from creation of a campaign to the approval of the ones in charge, when venturing into potentially eyebrow-raising content, there has to be scrutiny and examination of possible controversy or backlash. For instance, the fact that Bud Light printed this label on its bottles in this day and age should have been flagged with greater prejudice. This is where experience and judgment comes in. Someone with authority in the company should have recognized the inevitable backlash that would ensue an either pulled the campaign, or craft a damn good explanation as to why this should not be met with a harsh reaction by women.

Cheerios pulled the tweet after the backlash. What would I have done if I was CEO of Cheerios? I don’t know exactly how many angry reactions they received – whether it was a lot or just a few particularly nasty replies. So I guess I’d have to have that information. But my instinct would be to keep it up and let the haters hate. That’s my personality, and if I had more data in front of me and could gauge the extent of the negativity, I might have done what Cheerios did.

Marketers/Communicators Should Keep On Keepin’ On
The internet has been a blessing and a curse. It certainly breaks down communication barriers and allows people from all over the world talk with one another like never before. It’s given everyone a voice that can be heard at a global level at any given time. And often, they’ll use that voice to express displeasure at anything and everything.

I think that creativity is the best way communicators can build engagement. Instances like this can discourage colleagues in our field from pushing the boundaries and innovating the delivery of messages, and encourage them to play it safe more often. Obviously there are creative ways to appeal to a broad range of audiences, but there are times when we need to differentiate ourselves from the competition. In the grand scheme of things, we’re still in the infancy of the internet, and we’re still learning how to navigate it – that’s especially true for those of us who grew up in a world with only traditional forms of communication.

Instances like this will happen again and again, and we’ll learn from each episode. But marketers and other corporate communicators should not become gun shy when they see backlash like we saw with Cheerios. Push boundaries, but be smart. Again, we live in The World of the Offended. Do your due diligence to broaden your appeal, and be prepared when someone finds even the tiniest element in your communication against which to lash out.

I guess that’s enough rambling for now. What are your thoughts? Did I miss the mark here? Are there any examples you have that illustrate instances of legitimate or illegitimate outrage? Let me know in the Comment section below!

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