Culture Feature

Emotional Advertising: This Is Your Brain on Outrage

If it makes you mad, you'll click on it. And more brands are catching on.

This year's London Fashion Week attracted the standard cornucopia of high end brands showcasing their weird-as-hell designs, from Victoria Beckham disregarding the impracticality of peep toe boots in the winter to Burberry debuting a hoodie with a noose as the drawstring.

Yes, they did that. And yes, everyone was uncomfortable.

The Guardian

Liz Kennedy took to Instagram this week to voice not only her opposition to the clothing item, but how flippantly her concerns were disregarded at the fashion show. "Suicide is not fashion," she posted. "It is not glamorous nor edgy and since this show is dedicated to the youth expressing their voice, here I go.

"Riccardo Tisci and everyone at Burberry it is beyond me how you could let a look resembling a noose hanging from a neck out on the runway. How could anyone overlook this and think it would be okay to do this especially in a line dedicated to young girls and youth. The impressionable youth. Not to mention the rising suicide rates world wide. Let's not forget about the horrifying history of lynching either."

After her post gained media attention, Burberry was quick to respond with a rote apology. Marco Gobbetti, the brand's chief executive officer, issued a statement to CNN, "We are deeply sorry for the distress caused by one of the products that featured in our A/W 2019 runway collection. Though the design was inspired by the marine theme that ran throughout the collection, it was insensitive and we made a mistake."

But the line's nautical theme was inconsequential, as Kennedy noted, "There are hundreds of ways to tie a rope and they chose to tie it like a noose completely ignoring the fact that it was hanging around a neck. A massive brand like Burberry who is typically considered commercial and classy should not have overlooked such an obvious resemblance." She went on to describe feeling "extremely triggered" by the drawstrings' resemblance to a noose, alluding to a history of suicide within her family. She added, "The issue is not about me being upset, there is a bigger picture here of what fashion turns a blind eye to or does to gain publicity."

Burberry is only the latest fashion brand to release a wildly problematic clothing item, as there's been an uptick in the bizarre trend of companies trading outrage for publicity. Earlier this month, Gucci pulled a black "wool balaclava sweater" from its stores after public backlash highlighted its resemblance to blackface. Gucci stated on Twitter that the brand "deeply apologizes for the offense caused" and gave a bland, generic claim to "consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld."

But when Piers Morgan is the voice of reason, something is sorely wrong. In response to the blackface sweater, Morgan posted, "I refuse to believe NOBODY at @gucci realised this would create a 'black face' racial firestorm...unless every member of their staff is a complete halfwit...which leads me to suspect they did it deliberately...which, if true, makes Gucci despicably cynical."

In fact, it is unlikely that no one objected to Gucci or Burberry's inflammatory designs. It wouldn't even be out of the ordinary if they pursued outrage as a form of marketing. In 2018, Forbes published "Let's Get Emotional: The Future of Online Marketing," detailing how "emotions can boost an ad's virality online." While this scans true insofar as consumers' feelings toward a company inform their brand loyalty, strong negative reactions toward a brand or a product are just as powerful.

The day Gucci recalled its blackface sweater, the brand became a trending Twitter topic. After Burberry apologized for its noose hoodie, the hashtags #Burberry and #BurberryNoose accrued hundreds of Tweets per hour. As Alex Nichols wrote in The Outline's article, Please Buy Our Product That Makes You So Mad, "This proposition is undoubtedly highly attractive to advertisers, who normally have to fork over $200,000 to get something trending on Twitter. Here's my theory: corporate marketing departments are setting out to hijack this process, thus accomplishing the same thing—but for free."

The key is to incur outrage. With the global advertising industry worth over a trillion dollars in 2017 (over $190 billion in online marketing alone), of course brands are aware of the public's most temperamental topics. In the U.S., the largest advertising market in the world, any imagery stirring racial tensions or bipartisan conflict is a shortcut to free publicity, because the Internet exists as a vent for outrage.

Nichols notes, "When it comes to viral marketing, listicles and promoted tweets are far less cost-effective than press releases that prod our sore spots. If any mildly politically provocative corporate announcement can dominate that day's news cycle through takes, counter-takes, meta-takes and aggregated clapbacks for a total cost of $0, what use is advertising? The onus is on us to stop falling for it."

But with social media bringing sociopolitical issues to the fore of our daily lives, aren't we a part of the problem if we don't speak out? Doesn't silence make us complicit? It seems half of America's social media users believe so. According to Pew Research Center's survey in 2018, about half of all Americans had been "civically active on social media." Specifically, 34% of respondents said they had "taken part in a group that shares an interest in an issue/cause, while 32% "encouraged others to take action on issues important to them."

Of course, long-term damage to a brand's reputation is a high risk to take for shocked Twitter mentions. So it's possible these companies are as genuinely tone deaf as they are blinded by greed for publicity. Liz Kennedy made it clear that she wasn't attacking Burberry as a brand, but its disregard for the gravity of the social issues it was so willing to tap into, posting, "I am ashamed to have been apart[sic] of the show. I did not post this to disrespect the designer or the brand but to simply express an issue I feel very passionate about."

Meanwhile, Harlem designer Daniel R. Ray took it upon himself to follow up with Gucci this week. He posted to his Instagram that he'd met with Gucci's CEO, as well as "some of the best minds from the corporate world," including "90% people of color." He wrote, "They made great demands. It's time for Gucci to answer. That is supposed to happen today...Once we have received an answer, I will be announcing a townhall meeting in Harlem for us to talk about how we feel about what they have proposed." While it's unclear if the Italy-based fashion brand will conduct an apology tour to make up for its blackface sweater, Ray maintains, "There is no excuse nor apology that can erase this kind of insult. There cannot be inclusivity without accountability."

From other fashion brands like Prada and Dolce and Gabbana to common retailers like H&M, we can't confirm what brands are thinking when they approve blatantly offensive products. One marketing expert at Metaforce, Allen Adamson, merely offers, "There is such pressure on speed that there is no time for consideration. When you are moving this fast, there is no time for perspective." So in regards to consumers, your outrage could be exactly what these brands want; but, it also works to sharpen our cultural perspective to find blackface and suicide definitively off trend.

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

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Brands are Not Your Friends

Attempting to reach a younger demographic, fast food chains have started tweeting about having chronic depression.


If you've spent any time on Twitter, then you already know Wendy's has the coolest social media presence of any company ever.

Their Twitter account is renowned for its sharp-wittedness and "savage" roasts targeting both competing fast food chain and its own consumers. Amidst pushing Wendy's classic "fresh, never frozen" mantra, jokes about users' physical appearances never seem out of place. As such, they've gained a massive following on Twitter (3 million plus users) along with a good deal of street cred amongst meme lords.

Their prominence on social media has translated into massive revenue for the company. Unsurprisingly, tons of other brands are now striving to emulate Wendy's voice on Twitter with the goal of attracting the coveted 18-24 demographic, a group that typically has no interest in brand interactions. This is the result:

SunnyD, the kind-of-orange drink brand, tweeted "I can't do this anymore," eliciting 346,000 likes, 152,000 retweets, and "concerned" responses from MoonPie, Pop-Tarts, Crest, Corn Nuts, Uber Eats, Wikipedia, Healthline, and Pornhub.

On one hand, the notion of a children's drink brand experiencing an existential crisis is funny. It's funny in the exact ironic way that memelords love. SunnyD accomplished exactly what it set out to do with its Tweet.

On the other hand, SunnyD isn't depressed. MoonPie isn't concerned. It's not one guy on social media talking to another guy on social media through corporate accounts. It's multiple teams of social media professionals curating ironic brand voices to sell products for a massive parent organization. It's the humanization of brands, capitalism's final frontier.

The Changing Ad-Scape

Historically, advertising has largely been focused around selling consumers an experience. This product will make you look cooler. This product will make people like you. This product will make your life easier. This product will bring you joy.

A good example of this is the famous Carousel scene from Mad Men, which shows marketing master Don Draper pitching Kodak on how to best frame their newest product.

Mad Men - The Carousel (Higher Quality)

Draper paints a picture of nostalgia for Kodak. Consumers aren't buying "The Carousel." They're buying a portal to their favorite memories. While marketing methods are always adapting, for decades, brands were focused on selling experiences like these.

But things have changed. Millennials, and to a greater extent, Gen Z, don't trust brands like older people do. Not only do younger generations have way more options, but many of them dislike large corporations on principle. Considering their massive buying power as a market segment, major brands have struggled to keep up.

For a while, irreverent humor seemed like the way to go. Brands like Old Spice created strange, funny commercials to draw in younger audiences with the hope that if they didn't respond to the product, they would at least respond to the comedy.

Old Spice | The Man Your Man Could Smell Like

This worked very well, but in the advertising world when something works, everybody tries to get a piece. Soon, irreverent comedy in marketing became hackneyed and try-hard, with every other company aiming to be "funny." American Express went so far as to convince Tina Fey to do the least funny thing in her entire career:

Tina Fey’s Guide To Workout Gear | American Express

Which leads us to the present. Irreverent humor no longer seems to be a legitimate strategy. If brands want to connect, they need to connect on Gen Z's home turf: social media.

The Danger of Viewing Brands as Human

Today, brand voice is everything. On social media, brands can't just be impartial advertisers if they want to stand out from their competition. They need a personality.

Some, like Nike and Gillette, aim to be political in an effort to appear more socially conscious.


Campaigns like these generate a lot of social buzz, but come off as disingenuous considering many of these companies also utilize slave labor. After all, no matter what they say in their campaigns, the ideal large corporations hold dearest is that of maximizing profits.

The other far less controversial option is to meme. This makes sense considering the prolific nature of meme culture across social media. Provided they have a savvy, young team of social marketers, curating an ironic, savage™ brand persona is a surprisingly easy way for brands to connect with their target audiences. It humanizes them and makes them seem cool in a way that shoehorned social justice campaigns cannot.

But, therein lies the problem. Ironic brand voices are just as inauthentic as corporate-sponsored social justice campaigns and to pretend otherwise is to buy into a marketing ploy.

To clarify, there's nothing wrong with liking a brand, enjoying it's marketing, and spending your money on its products. If you realize Wendy's savage brand voice is all an attempt to get you (presumably someone in their teens-early 30s) to buy burgers, awesome.

The danger is not understanding that you are being blatantly marketed to and pandered to in the same way that Don Draper panders nostalgia through Kodak. The means may have changed, but the mission is exactly the same.

Go ahead, enjoy the hilarity of Wendy's burns. Enjoy SunnyD's depression. Enjoy MoonPie's whatever the hell this is:

Because it's funny. Just remember, it's all marketing. It's all intended to make you spend your money. It's not really ironic. It's capitalism in a funny outfit.

Dan Kahan is a writer & screenwriter from Brooklyn, usually rocking a man bun. Find more at

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