Thanks to the breakneck pace of social media and a journalistic climate that favors insta-takes over measured analysis, the process of provocation, backlash, and counter-backlash can now be completed in record time. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane to last February, when Donald Trump’s steak preferences caused a national furor. A pointless International Journalism Review report revealed that the president orders his steaks well-done with ketchup, which is a disgusting, if innocuous, thing to do. Within a few hours, the mainstream media had picked up the story and non-Republican Twitter was savagely mocking the president’s unrefined palate. Since liberals were against putting ketchup on steak, conservatives had to be for it, and they chose to interpret Trump’s childish eating habits as an intentional fuck-you to coastal elites. Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson declared liberals “traumatized” by Trump’s steaks and opined that “only idiot hipsters who are trying to be trendy order their steaks anything less than medium-well.” Matthew Continetti, editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, wrote an op-ed titled “Freedom Is Eating Steak Well Done With Ketchup,” which contained the sentence “I want nothing more than to run to the nearest steakhouse, order the filet well done, and dunk the bites in a raft of condiments, from ketchup to Tabasco to relish to mustard.”
These brief ping-pong games of feigned outrage can be entertaining, but they ultimately accomplish nothing. Each side digs in its heels until the discussion becomes a parody of itself. The only appreciable effect of any given micro-controversy is that the phrase in question — whether it be “well-done steak,” “shithole countries,” or “covfefe” — sees a brief uptick in search traffic and appears organically in millions of users’ feeds. 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.
This week it was “Lady Doritos.” In an interview on the Freakonomics podcast (which I was upset to learn exists) PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi suggested that the chip division of her company was developing a cleaner, less crunchy Dorito variety aimed at women. As is the internet’s wont, Nooyi’s comments were wildly misconstrued and became a flashpoint for Twitter hysteria. “Lady Doritos” were never actually going to be a real thing, and PepsiCo walked back the suggestion within a day with an incredible tweet: “We already have Doritos for women — they’re called Doritos, and they’re loved by millions.” Truer words were never spoken.
In the meantime, however, the conglomerate won itself an astonishing amount of free advertising. “Lady Doritos” was a top trend on Twitter for an entire day, and every publication from the Washington Post to Russia Today felt the need to weigh in on this non-issue. Rush Limbaugh accused the Dorito critics of being “feminazis.” Infowars’ Watson, whose job is essentially to exploit these situations, tweeted that “Many of those whining about 'Lady Doritos' still appear to think the "gender pay gap" is a thing.” Once PepsiCo disavowed the concept, it was Slate’s turn to jump in the ring, with a contrarian piece titled “You Know What, I Do Want ‘Lady Doritos’.” The coverage was almost entirely negative, but with established brands, all press is good press. For products as simple and ubiquitous as Doritos, the goal of advertising isn’t to win over new customers — just to continuously drill the brand name into our collective subconscious. Did you not want a Dorito after hearing about them all day?
We already have Doritos for women — they’re called Doritos, and they’re loved by millions.— Doritos (@Doritos) February 6, 2018
A mere week before the concept of Lady Doritos was introduced, a culture war raged over KFC casting Reba McEntire as the first woman to play Colonel Sanders in its advertisements. Like woman-friendly Doritos, this inconsequential decision was catnip for topical jokesmiths. “We didn’t get a woman president, but at least we got a woman Colonel Sanders,” quipped hundreds of people who presumably thought they were being clever. Alt-right conspiracy theorist Mark Dice phoned in his phony outrage, tweeting “So... KFC's Colonel Sanders is transgender now? These Leftists and their Cultural Marxism is out of control. They are determined to destroy the human race.” Hundreds of otherwise intelligent people mockingly quote-tweeted Dice, simultaneously raising his stature and that of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s trademarked brand ambassador. On top of the obligatory Colonel Sanders updates on CNN and Fox News, the social media controversy won KFC a second round of free headlines like TIME’s “KFC's New Colonel Sanders Is Reba McEntire and the Internet Has Endless Thoughts About It” and Newsweek’s “KFC Casts First Female Colonel Sanders, and Some Men are Actually Mad.”
So... KFC's Colonel Sanders is transgender now? These Leftists and their Cultural Marxism is out of control. They are determined to destroy the human race.— Mark Dice (@MarkDice) January 26, 2018
Disney seemed to use a similar strategy to market Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is currently the ninth-highest grossing film of all time. A month after the film’s December 2017 release, a 46-minute fan edit that removed all scenes involving women appeared on torrent tracker The Pirate Bay. Were it not for Australian website Pedestrian TV, whose “about” section brags that “On the brand partnership front, we work with giants like McDonald’s, Suncorp, Nike, Holden, Telstra, Smirnoff, Microsoft and CommBank to regularly create award-winning integrated campaigns,” no one outside a tiny audience of lonely Star Wars fans would have known about it. A screenshot of the Pedestrian article with the caption “ahhaahahahhahahahahahhahahhahahahahhahhhhhaaaahahahha” introduced it to Twitter, which reacted with equal parts sexist concern trolling and epic celebrity clapbacks. Director Rian Johnson and actors Mark Hamill and John Boyega all mocked the anonymously uploaded torrent, and their tweets were quickly aggregated into articles in the Washington Post, BBC, Polygon, Newsweek, Huffington Post, Slate, Vanity Fair, Mashable, GQ, and AV Club. Here’s a tip for all the ailing media properties who have to plead with visitors to turn off AdBlock — try asking Disney and PepsiCo for money before you give them embedded advertising.
Manufactured outrage campaigns of this sort aren’t new, and they do tend to disproportionately exploit tensions over sexism. Superficial messages of women’s empowerment are relatively apolitical, having been co-opted long ago by dubious figures like Sheryl Sandberg and Ivanka Trump. Taking a stand on long-settled issues like “women should be allowed in TV commercials” brings out a relatively small opposition of revanchist losers and opportunistic trolls, whose unsympathetic whining lends itself to aggregation in “Men are mad about X” trend pieces. This amplification of fringe voices imbues the mundane act of giving money to KFC or Warner Bros. with political meaning. The 2016 female-led Ghostbusters reboot benefited from a heavily-publicized sexist backlash, to the point that nearly every review came with a disclaimer. (From the Vanity Fair review: “I really wanted to like director Paul Feig’s reimagining, to prove all the misogynist online naysayers wrong.”) 2017’s Wonder Woman was elevated from a paint-by-numbers superhero movie into a touchstone for the #Resistance by publicity stunts like the all-women screening at Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse — and the ensuing lawsuit alleging reverse discrimination.
What we’re seeing now is a more ephemeral marketing strategy designed for post-Trump attention spans. Miniature controversies over junk-food advertisements are short-lived, but they also require minimal effort from advertisers — after that first drop of blood hits the water, we show up and finish the job for free. 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.