Where is the Line Between Edgy and Offensive Content?

To succeed with social media and online marketing, brands must find their voice. This process involves balancing the level of professionalism that is expected of their company with a social, relatable tone that helps followers engage with the brand. While this balance will be different for every company, the casual nature of social media and increasing corporate comfort with online marketing is leading more brands to leave their reserved comfort zone and embrace humor, relevancy, and even a bit of an edge in their online voice.

For the most part, this trend has lead to more engaged and relatable social media marketing, increased interaction, and campaigns that are innovative and entertaining. A number of brands have capitalized on embracing this type of personality, from pizza companies known for goofy and whimsical Twitter interactions to professional sports teams who take to social media sites to good-naturedly “trash talk” other teams with witty and funny taunts. However, as some recent controversial content from high-profile brands has shown us, edgy and provocative can backfire if it crosses the line into offensive.

Many times, current events can be a great topic for content that is relevant and relatable. Likewise, light sarcasm, banter, and humor can be excellent ways to connect with an online audience. However, anything that makes light of ongoing situations that are causing widespread fear, destruction, or pain is likely to hurt and offend readers, and do far more damage to a brand than good. When those insensitive comments also attempt to capitalize on the situation, the repercussions are magnified.

As Hurricane Sandy battered the Northeast earlier this week, a handful of high-profile retailers were the subject of public outrage due to marketing communication that seemed to capitalize on an ongoing natural disaster that cost lives and caused billions of dollars in destruction. A number of major retailers were called out, but perhaps the most noted example was clothing company American Apparel’s email. Sent to subscribers in affected states just as Hurricane Sandy was making landfall, the email offered an online sale for those “bored during the storm” by using the discount code SANDYSALE.

The social media backlash was swift, widespread and furious. Instead of edgy or relevant, many felt that the company came off as insensitive and opportunistic. Many social media users took to Twitter and blog comments to condemn the email and call for a boycott of the company. Compounding the outrage – and perhaps contributing to the overwhelming focus on American Apparel rather than the other brands who apologized for their comments –  was a response from the company’s CEO Dov Charney asserting that it wasn’t a serious matter and that he was sleeping well at night.

Another contributing factor to the response may be American Apparel’s history of embracing controversy; their ads are often sexually suggestive and some previous public comments have ruffled feathers. But although the sale wasn’t a complete failure from a financial standpoint, as Charney stated that it generated tens of thousands of dollars, the impact of the public criticism on their brand image remains to be seen. A brand as strong as American Apparel with their large and loyal fan base may be able to recover from this type of blemish on their public face, but similar actions could devastate a smaller company.

Recovering From a Misstep

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; the best course of action is to take steps to prevent finding yourself in this type of situation by carefully considering the attitude conveyed by your messages. But mistakes happen. Whether due to a lapse in judgment, poor phrasing choices, or ignorance of circumstances, you may wind up with a post or marketing email that crosses a line and offends readers. The appropriate response depends on the type and severity of the misstep. In the case of content that is inappropriate for your audience – such as responding to a follower’s post with a comment that was intended to be funny but came across as snarky – it may be as simple as noting your error and changing course in the future with an apology to the commenter.

In cases that offend or outrage your followers, however, a different course of action may be necessary. In many of these situations, a public apology is the smart choice. However, not all apologies are created equal. An effective apology requires two very important things: timeliness and sincerity. Don’t wait to see if it all blows over first, or stubbornly stand your ground in the face of outrage; a delayed apology is likely to come across as reluctant, or only to pacify and quiet the masses. For an apology to come across as sincere, it needs to acknowledge the mistake, take full responsibility, and announce a plan to remedy the situation, whether that means simply vowing to make better choices going forward or giving back to the community in a relevant way.

Whatever the misstep, and however you choose to handle it, there are a few standard rules of how not to respond:

Never get defensive. It’s human nature to protect yourself when feeling attacked, but attacking followers in response to online criticism is a surefire way to make things much worse.

Don’t make excuses. Giving an explanation is reasonable, but accept responsibility for what happened.

Don’t try to cover it up. Once something is published online or an email is sent, deleting it doesn’t mean it’s truly gone. Once it’s been read – and likely cached or saved in screenshots – it’s there forever. Deleting content should only happen when accompanied with an explanation and apology.

Again, the best thing you can do is pause to think before you post or send something to consider how it will be received. However, remember that no matter whether the misstep was mild and received limited attention or caused outrage that received widespread media coverage, any online marketing mistake is an opportunity for improvement. Embracing this opportunity and learning from the mistake not only gives the experience some kind of a silver lining, but also leaves you better prepared to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

Where do you think the line between edgy and offensive is? Have you ever crossed it?  Tell us in the comments. 

Image via @adriandparker 


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