What Happens When Brands Are Tone Deaf To Social Cues

Most scientists believe that humans’ sense of pain is an evolutionary necessity that helps them avoid injury and death. Too bad companies haven’t developed a similar self-protection response for social media.

What Happens When Brands Are Tone Deaf To Social Cues

Every time I hear about an organization that is oblivious to its poor customer service and employee morale, I’m reminded of a memorable 20/20 episode titled “A Life Without Pain.” The episode is about a girl named Gabby who doesn’t experience pain. She has a condition called congenital insensitivity to pain (CIPA), which allows her to feel touch, but prevents her brain from receiving signals that she’s experiencing pain.


Most scientists believe that humans’ sense of pain is an evolutionary necessity that helps them avoid injury and death. It’s a protective feedback loop in which the brain learns to avoid things that hurt the body. Not having that protective feedback loop means that people who suffer from CIPA continue to hurt themselves.

In a lot of respects, many corporations have a form of CIPA, and untold damage is occurring inside and outside the organizations but the executives don’t seem to feel it. They are not receiving the painful signals and thus they carry on as if nothing has happened. These companies don’t have the ability to feel pain and certainly don’t know how to respond to it.

Popchips: The Accidentally Racist Ad

In April 2012, Popchips released a video of Ashton Kutcher performing a variety of bachelor roles in a parody dating service commercial. In the commercial, one of the characters Kutcher played was an Indian guy named Raj, and Kutcher donned brownface as part of the act. The campaign had an estimated budget of $1.5 million, and included video, outdoor ads, and placement on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube.

Within hours Kutcher’s portrayal of Raj set off a firestorm of protest, including charges of racism. Anil Dash, a popular tech influencer, called the video, “a hackneyed, unfunny advertisement featuring Kutcher in brownface talking about his romantic options, with the entire punchline being that he’s doing it in a fake-Indian outfit and voice.”

Now, no one (including Dash) really believes that Popchips would commit brand suicide by purposely creating a racist ad to sell healthy potato chips. But when people of Indian descent started to complain on Twitter and other social networks, the company didn’t react right away. It continued to promote the ad.


Dash pressed on and took to Twitter with a series of critical tweets; here’s one that was retweeted 113 times, “Hey, startups that are helping @aplusk get richer, can you tell him that racist brownface ads aren’t cool? Thanks!”

Finally, Popchips founder Keith Belling reached out to Dash to apologize and told him that the company was going to pull the campaign. Later, Belling took to social media himself to officially apologize on behalf of the company. “We received a lot feedback about the dating campaign parody we launched today and appreciate everyone who took the time to share their point of view,” Belling wrote in the company’s blog. “Our team worked hard to create a lighthearted parody featuring a variety of characters that was meant to provide a few laughs. We did not intend to offend anyone. I take full responsibility and apologize to anyone we offended.”

But was that enough?

Popchips Lessons Learned

Whether or not you thought Dash and others were too sensitive about the portrayal of Raj in the dating video, it was clear that Popchips and Kutcher misunderstood that their core customers are health conscious, urban, and upper middle class, and are likely to be sensitive about racism. As the numbers of negative responses to the ad began to mount, Popchips was a little slow to react because they didn’t believe the video was racist and they hoped the controversy would blow over. And it may have, had one influential blogger not taken to social media. You see, this is a case of an influencer having the power to damage your brand. Take note.

Shell Oil Is Drilled Online


In June 2012, a Shell Oil Company site called Arctic Ready was calling on people to create ads for the company and share them with their friends. Shell provided images of polar bears, whales, birds, and oil rigs, and visitors to the website were asked to create custom captions for each of the images. There was also a game for kids called “Angry Bergs,” in which players were given points to keep the icebergs away from the oil rigs for fear they’d damage them. The site was an immediate hit, registering more than two million views in less than a week, but it wasn’t a hit for Shell. The ads that visitors created were extremely embarrassing; for example, one ad read, “Turn the power on, it’s time to melt some ice,” and in another, “Birds are like sponges for oil.”

Shell’s social response team on Twitter @ShellIsPrepared made matters worse by tweeting, “Our team is working overtime to remove inappropriate ads. Please stop sharing them,” and “PLEASE DO NOT RETWEET ANY OF OUR TWEETS. They are intended for our @ recipients only!” This only made more people want to explore the ads and retweet the content. That led influential journalist Marc Ambinder from The Atlantic to tweet, “Ain’t the way it works guys.” Meaning, this isn’t how you stop a social media campaign that’s spiraled out of control.

All told, ten thousand ads were generated (the majority of them negative), there were several hundred thousand social shares on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, the Twitter hashtag #shellfail was trending, and the site received millions of page views. The social campaign was a complete disaster, leaving many to ask, “What was Shell Oil thinking?”

As disastrous as the campaign was, you can’t blame Shell for it. For it was not led by them, it was created by Greenpeace and The Yes Lab. Everything, from the site to the @ShellIsPrepared Twitter account, was fake; it was an elaborate ruse played on one of the most well-known brands in the world. Remember the days when Greenpeace activists used to smash into large ships or chain themselves to drilling equipment? The task was extremely dangerous and expensive. Nowadays, Greenpeace is using the power of social media to combat its foes, and it’s working to devastating effect. The media, influencers, and several thousand people were duped by the campaign.

Despite the fact that the Arctic Party Fail video had repeatedly been reported as fake, as was its successor fake ad generator, visitors to the sites continue to be duped by them. This can’t be good for Shell.

So why didn’t Shell Oil respond with a lawsuit or on social media? Fearing even greater attention to the fake campaigns, the company apparently decided to take a pass on it, choosing to issue the following statement: “The advertising contest is not associated with Shell, and neither is the site it’s on. And Shell did not file legal action in this matter. Our focus is on safely executing our operations.”


When asked about the fake campaigns, Greenpeace was brutally honest and claimed the moral high ground. It also boasted to that the stunt only cost them “tens of thousands of dollars,” and Greenpeace sees more uses for this kind of tactic. “It’s fun rather than preachy,” said James Turner, a media officer for Greenpeace, “We’re mastering corporate tools and using them effectively against corporate villains. It’s quite new, it’s fun to do, and it’s very effective.”

Shell Oil and Greenpeace Lessons Learned

Brands can’t rely on the media for protection; they must build a strong community around their brand that includes influencers and brand advocates. That way, when the brand is assailed there are legions of people who will step in to set the record straight. How does a company like Shell create an engaged community around its brand? Simply: because their product is oil, which many of us use but are not too excited about, the company needs to find a social cause that people can rally behind and support.

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Excerpted with permission from SOCIALIZED!: How the Most Successful Businesses Harness the Power of Social by Mark Fidelman (Bibliomotion, 2012).

Mark Fidelman is a Managing Director for Evolve! Inc., which specializes in developing intensely competitive businesses that adapt to market changes to become highly profitable. He has written for such publications as Business Insider and Technorati.

[Image: Flickr user Søren Gammelmark]