It seems outrage is all the rage these days. Every morning, a new slew of offenses pop up on the public radar and we get to focus our righteous indignation on a new set of threats to justice. But what if there’s more to those injustices than we thought?
What if these slights against the public’s sense of morality are carefully planned and orchestrated in order to generate grass-roots engagement and publicity for online content? What if being offensive is just a new form of advertising?
Take for example Pepsi’s marketing campaign that featured Kendall Jenner giving a police officer a cold soda. Twitter and Facebook were flooded with people calling the ad “tone deaf” and bashing it.
On the surface, the ad was a failure, but lets look deeper. When was the last time a Pepsi advertisement generated so much discussion among the public? I don’t think I could name any of Pepsi’s last ten ad campaigns, but chiseled clearly in my mind is Kendall handing a cop a beverage. The result was that Pepsi had their name said countless times online and in the resulting broadcast news coverage — paying for that much publicity would have been outrageous, but they got the public to provide it for free, by creating a truly devious marketing campaign that appeared, at worst, “tone deaf.”
There’s a strange phenomenon at play here. In online media, engagement is everything. Views and impressions are nice, but it’s better to get your audience to like or comment on your content, as this engagement generally spreads it further among the network of the person who engaged. It also promotes your content within the platform’s algorithms.
So here’s where the strategic psychology comes into play. When people see something they agree with, they tend to nod their head and move along. However, give them something to disagree with, and it’s much more likely they’ll engage. We have a natural love of the feeling of superiority we get in correcting something that we know is incorrect — even if its irrelevant to our lives. So, by saying a clearly false statement, a creator can bait their audience into responding, which amplifies the reach of the content. With it’s now amplified reach, there’s more audience who feel inclined to point out the false information, and so a simple wrong statement has the ability to propel itself to viral infamy.
In a world where no press is bad press, how far does this manipulation extend? Did Pewdipie bribe the Wall Street Journal to attack him in print? Did Jake Paul conspire with his neighbors to call the police and get people talking? The press has been manipulated into being a marketing tool again and again. Now, in the digital era, where we each have taken on the role of representing our own voice in the global conversation, how much are we as individuals being fooled into being corporate shills by getting us to talk about offensive acts that were crafted explicitly to draw our engagement?
Or maybe that’s just what they want you to think.