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How Wendy’s Ended Up Creating (And Then Deleting) A Coded Racist Meme For Twitter

Advice for social media managers: Assume that anything you see floating around online could be a coded message among white supremacists.

How Wendy’s Ended Up Creating (And Then Deleting) A Coded Racist Meme For Twitter
[Photo Illustration: Joel Arbaje for Fast Company]

Over the weekend, the Wendy’s Twitter account found itself celebrated for its thorough and effective takedown of a troll who decided to use the platform to argue about the brand’s “Fresh, Never Frozen” tagline. That claim has been a source of confusion on the Internet for some time among people who lack the imagination to figure out how meat could be fresh if a cow that wasn’t slaughtered in the back of the restaurant, but after the response from Wendy’s–which ended with the chain’s Twitter account chastising a user “because you forgot refrigerators existed”–it’s unlikely many people will make that mistake again.

The tweet was widely circulated–it was retweeted over 7,000 times–and brought some positive attention to the brand. And it seems that enjoying its moment in the sun after the collective whoops and cheers of the Twitter-sphere led Wendy’s to get a little too edgy: this morning, after another Twitter user asked the brand “Got any memes,” the account responded by tweeting out an image of a cartoon frog with red pigtails, inadvertently mashing up Wendy’s logo with the white supremacist symbol Pepe the Frog.

Wendy’s quickly deleted the tweet, explaining that their community manager was “unaware of the recent evolution of the Pepe meme’s meaning.” That’s probably true–Pepe has been a meme since the days of MySpace, and was only adopted by white supremacists in the last year. It’s found a cozy home there, though–the Anti-Defamation League included Pepe on its list of hate symbols last year–and while Pepe’s creator has lamented the transformation of his character into something racists use to communicate amongst themselves, the fact is that it’s a look that a brand like Wendy’s would certainly prefer to avoid.

Chasing the sort of social media approval that Wendy’s got for the “you forgot refrigerators existed” tweet is an easy trap to fall into. People like it when big, mainstream brands are edgy online, and interact with the same sort of sarcastic, pointed tone that the rest of us do. But those social networks–especially Twitter–are increasingly volatile places, where seemingly harmless images carry meanings that no brand (or decent human) would want to be associated with. Brands are praised when they communicate in the same way that the ordinary users of a site like Twitter do–but when a not-insubstantial number of those ordinary users communicate through racist memes to express abhorrent views, there are real dangers for a brand that chooses to play in those waters.

About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club.

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