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Shock Marketing on Social Media Has Gone Too Far

The advertising strategy that began as corporations trying to relate to “fellow kids” has evolved into something far more inflammatory and harmful.

Women belong in the kitchen. 

Now that I have your attention with a shocking lede, it’s time to talk Burger King and the rise of viral marketing. On International Women’s Day, the Twitter account for Burger King UK published this statement in a thread of inclusivity inspired tweets, promising to “change the gender ratio in the restaurant industry by empowering female employees with the opportunity to pursue a culinary career.” Burger King is a corporation that values cheap labor above anything else, so it’s unlikely that they truly care about women’s opportunities. Nonetheless, it’s a common tactic for companies to co-opt concerns about inclusivity for free advertising. 

However, to make Burger King the talk of the town for at least a few hours, the marketing team had an epiphany. By starting the thread with an insulting phrase frequently used on the internet — women belong in the kitchen — engagement would skyrocket. Of course, they could always mask their intentions with trying to “liberate” the expression. The tweet was an unprecedented success, drawing 600,000 likes and 150,000 retweets. Fantastic! 

Oh, nevermind. People hate it. Everyone from social activists to Minecraft Twitter influencers bashed the off-color clickbait, even with other brands jumping on the bandwagon. Within 12 hours, it was gone, and an official apology was issued. Unfortunately, if the popularity of this tweet means anything, it’s that we’ll start seeing this kind of marketing more and more frequently. 

Advertising is a huge business, for one reason: it works. Humans latch on to ideas they hear or see, and let them affect every aspect of their life. Over the years, plenty of attempts have been made to find the best method of influencing our decisions. Innovative ways of manipulating our hardwired desires are thrown at us from every angle, with some of the smartest people in the world constantly working to hijack our minds. The newest tool: social media. There was some initial hilarity as brands tried desperately to appeal to young people, often misusing trending lingo and trying to build personalities online. This method of advertising was dubbed “fellow kids,” after the nature of how the brands would market themselves to the Generation Z demographic. But this Burger King tweet shows a devious new angle: exploiting our urge to debate online. 

People do this all the time on the internet, grabbing at engagement through derogatory tweets and jokes intended to enrage people. Since most social media platforms recommend content based on metrics like comments, even negative attention gives it a high chance of virality. The only way to win, frustratingly, is to ignore it. People were certainly not ignoring Burger King when the corporation successfully captured the attention of the entire Twitter-using world on International Women’s Day. No doubt other brands are furiously taking notes, wondering how far they can push the envelope for inflammatory remarks. With a sure audience ready to shovel attention to any offensive tweet, it’s a miracle it took this long for a brand to leverage them. So what can we do?

There’s not a simple answer. We can’t all unite to drive brands back into the newspapers and billboards, but maybe we can make social media a little less profitable. We often feel obligated to defend what’s right and just on the internet, crusading for social equality with public outrage. But in the end, pouring gasoline into a dumpster fire does nothing to share a positive message. The best thing to do may be to let outrageous attention-grabs by brands die in irrelevancy, no matter how tempting it may be to write a whole article on them. Oops.