Brands are fighting back the trolls, but are the trolls retreating?

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According to the Oxford Dictionary a troll is, in folkloric culture, "an ugly creature depicted either as a giant or dwarf.” But we don’t live in a folkloric world, so why are trolls still present in today’s society?

WING London consider what brands should do if their work is criticised by internet trolls.

We’ve all seen them. Scroll down to the comments of any YouTube video and there’ll be some nasty comments spurted boldly and anonymously from behind a generic avatar, intending to provoke and sow discord. This is, of course, generally accompanied by a litany of swear words and spelling mistakes.

Taking the form of pixels on the internet, most closely associated with social media, their weapons are opinionated, occasionally ugly remarks, but they can have giant consequences by dwarfing people and brands who put themselves out on open platforms.

Although the “sticks and stones” argument could be applied here, the issue has grown so serious that in 2016 the UK lawmakers legislated on the most extreme cases, with links being made to suicides and substantial company disruption. Alison Saunders, director of Public Prosecutions defines the legislative justification as: “if you are grossly abusive to people, if you are bullying or harassing people online, then we will prosecute in the same way as if you did it offline.”

Although this legislation is supposedly set out to protect “people” from harm, it does not extend as far as brands.But it’s just one guy’s opinion, right? Well, some brands are so un-enamoured of these public opinionators, they even take the precaution of playing ‘clean-up’ or not allowing these comments to exist at all. Are brands right to ignore the troll’s pervasive presence, or is there something to be learned here?

With trolls impaling fear into every digital marketer’s mind, brands seem to be fighting back, but are the trolls retreating?

Scaredy Troll

According to the EU Commission figures, there's been a 42% rise in hateful content being removed from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube since 2016. Social agency We Are Social reports that brands are finding it increasingly difficult to tread the fine line between encouraging debate and tackling hate speech, with 89% of them silencing hateful comments by deleting or hiding them. In combating this recent trend, brands are clearly playing it safe, but does it mean that they might lose their edge?

Although we don’t disagree with the removal of certain comments - I mean what does ‘ya mum’ really have to do with anything? - timidity towards public debate could also suggest a spill-over in outputs. Ask any creative team: aside from the majority of clients all too often jumping straight to the cheaper option, they go for the ‘safer’ option too. But trolling can’t be the only thing to blame; the ASA has faced protest in the last few months for harsh regulations - need we mention the ice-cool ape for the 100 billionth time?

Brand Trolls & Fo’ Reals?

Trolling of brands, rather than individuals, demands an almost complete redefinition in some circumstances. It is not a personal attack on someone’s appearance or character, it is an attack on a corporate identity. This is less defamatory because it is an opinion placed on a collective. Because of this, brand trolling doesn’t fall under the same jurisdiction because the law serves to protect “people” – it can be damaging, but not to the same degree.

A recent incident with Gucci is a perfect way of demonstrating how the two differ exactly. Gucci’s latest collection included a Sikh-style turban; the prosecution in Twitter court pledged a multi-faceted attack on the brand, labelling it as an offensive cultural appropriation of the highest degree, owing to its religious symbolism. The brand was sentenced to boycotts.

Online pressure is powerful; this incident was enough for Gucci to pull the $800 offending article from online stores. We’re also reminded that this isn’t Gucci’s first run-in with the law of cultural sensitivities: their ‘blackface’ turtle neck the other year also had its day after it was debated online, leading the product to be discontinued again.

Trolls are becoming a live focus group for brands. It’s almost human testing, with social media acting as the scientific institute that delivers the results. The issue for brands is that it’s totally out in the open for all to see (although live testing could suggest a lack of earlier research and plentiful ignorance on the part of brands).

Either the entire creative team have grown up under a rock (I mean c’mon, a turban in today’s PC-conscious climate?) OR the brand isn’t phased by likely criticism and still wants to ‘push the boundaries’. Perhaps they wanted to cause a bit of raucous debate, and ‘accidentally’ PR the sh*t out of the new collection without spending a penny. Perhaps Gucci haven’t lost their bolsh at all.

…Or perhaps, just perhaps,they need to take a long hard look at their recruitment policies. In-house diversity can prevent unintended offence, as well as being a good thing for a hundred other reasons. Future reference: articles which could be associated with certain cultures and religions will probably piss off members of said cultures and religions. Unfortunately not even major fashion houses can sashay away from that one. Ahem, D&G vs China.

Focus for Good

As much as social media gets a bad wrap (rightly so in some cases), it allows important debates to emerge to the fore. Groups can represent themselves where they deem fit as we’ve seen in the case of Gucci. This freedom of text is generally better for everyone socially when used appropriately and means that brands/bodies/organisations do not dictate conversation.

For example, let’s take a look at Gillette’s recent Venus campaign that featured plus size model, Anna O’Brien. Some slammed Gillette for promoting obesity in the same way that some brands are criticised for using anorexic models. At the same time, people brandished the photo as flying the flag for body positivity. Despite the pressure from ‘trolls’, Gillette responded: “Venus is committed to representing beautiful women of all shapes, sizes, and skin types because ALL types of beautiful skin deserve to be shown.”

Surely in this sense, being unafraid of being brash on your platform, opening yourself up to this conversation and potential trolling should be seen as a good thing. Brands who are unashamed to live by their values and principles have got branding down. Small print: but of course exercise caution without causing offence to marginalised groups and minorities. Because brands should be bold, not spineless (this is what brands that delete comments look like).

Think of it socially: generally people are drawn to confidence and self-assurance, NOT timidity and diffidence. Suuuuuure, that confident person might turn out to be a douche in the end, but the ephemeral peacocking had its desired effect right? You’re drawn.

#InspiredByTrolls

Sometimes the social media focus group that is ‘trolls’ are even enveloped in the campaigns themselves. This is not a new tactic, in fact one of the first campaigns was created by Under Armour in 2014 which featured supermodel Gisele combating the negative comments she’s faced over the years being in the spotlight.

As WING have noticed, highlighting the hate speech and underlining trolls as figures of hatred can cast a positive light on your brand, as in the case of UA - with many expressing their support of Gisele and the brand.

Vita Coco did something similar as part of their “Impossible to Hate” campaign, in which the brand identified the internet’s worst trolling offenders and invited them to try their latest concoction. The brand was so confident that its product would be a harmonious success with both lovers and haters. “Because if even internet haters don’t hate it, no one will,” they said.

One serial offender named simply ‘Tony’ responded by saying: “save that nasty s--- for someone else. I would rather drink your social media person’s piss than coconut water.” Vita Coco then rebutted with a person holding a jar of what looks like urine titled #NewProfilePic. Afterwards they explained that “at Vita Coco, we’ll go to great lengths to prove a hater wrong.”

The picture was liked over 6k times on Twitter and it seems users positively received the pic, stating the likes of: “Well I don't even like Coconut water and I followed and am going to buy some @VitaCoco now just because of that Tweet,” and “I can't believe I'm going to end up trying Vita Coco solely because someone pissed in a jar.”

Either Vita Coco’s ‘giveashit’ attitude just uncovered an outbreak of urophagia or they just checkmated a troll whilst simultaneously increasing their fan base by being brand-true and ultimately, brand-proud.

Emotional Abuse

A brands’ stance against trolls attracts publicity and support by appealing to emotions and an audience's sense of togetherness. A recent trolling on a dating app which was made public by the victim on Twitter kicked ASOS in to action.

Commenting on an ASOS dress the woman was sporting, the troll commented that the dress “was not doing her any favours.” The online clothing brand retaliated by making the victim the model for the dress and as a result enjoyed great publicly.

Check Channel 4’s #TogetherAgainstHate campaign. The premise was based around victims of serial online abuse. Issues such as racism and ableism are raised with actual troll comments documented. The comments are so cruel that a ‘shock’ disclaimer is warranted during the intro to the piece. This underlined C4’s value for diversity and inclusion, something it’s known for since its association with the Paralympics.

As a figure of utter hatred, the troll has become an important means for brands to express their views on body positivity, racism and ableism. So for those brands, like ASOS and Channel 4, trolling the troll is a pretty effective method.

WINGpinion

As ‘do no harm’ world famous troll Ken M. states, the term ‘troll’ “has been expanded so widely that it’s beginning to lose its meaning.” Hate speech should not be confused with opinion.

People who have fair opinions and wish to express themselves on public platforms should not be brandished under the guise of an ugly mythical creature. Often these are real views and real people - they should not be uglified with such a term or pigeon-holed and ignored with the legions of bad-mannered individuals.

The role of the troll has changed indeed; they are targets of utter hatred, they are centres of campaigns, they are orchestrators of coups but are they are also people with opinions. Ultimately the problem here is the feeble definition of a troll, something that brands should not feel initimidated by.

Tips

For brands wanting to show a more human side, don’t be afraid to engage with consumers or take a stance in outputs. In most cases, deleting comments can make you look ashamed and uncomfortable. So how about employing more inventive, witty, human and brand knowledgeable social media managers like Vita Coco, ASOS and Channel 4?

Some comments just shouldn’t be given airtime. Instead of pretending truly defamatory opinions don’t exist and hiding them, brands have a responsibility to report them and end the cycle.

If you’re going to take a stance, weigh up whether it’s worth offending and consider limiting the chances that it could be taken (such as in the case of Gucci).

Diversity in your team is going to minimise the chances of unintended offence, bring new voices to attract a new audience, and ultimately benefit your business.

Martha Evans is the business development & client services manager at creative content agency, WING London.

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