The Margin For Error In Social Media – My View On Bic’s Blunder

Last week thousands of community managers, custodians of the social media presence of companies big and small, sat down to plan their content for Women’s Day 2015. The same thing happened around Christmas, Father’s Day, Secretary’s Day, Left Hander’s Day, flipping Star Wars Day and every other day in between.

This is what brands do in social media. They look to capitalise on cultural moments – the social zeitgeist – with a clever quip, tailored piece of content, or a sweet message aimed at “improving brand sentiment”.

That’s what the community manager behind Bic was trying to do when they planned, designed and posted the now infamous Women’s Day image on the brand’s Twitter account on Sunday evening.

It is plainly obvious that the message wasn’t very well thought out and that it was likely to draw attention of the worst kind on a day when a large portion of the population was already very critical of the seemingly opportunistic commercialisation of what should be an event driving awareness around the many abuses and indiscretions against women young and old in the past, and still today.

When the image was posted the account had an almost negligible 300 followers. The reaction to the image was immediate and severe, and in a very short period of time the tweet had gone global, and viral. It has since been covered by Mashable, CNN, The Guardian and more. In short, it has received tens of millions of dollars worth of media coverage.

If you’ll excuse the terrible pun, there was an astonishingly fine line(r) between Bic’s tweet never being noticed and what is now reality – being arguably one of the most pervasive and talked about global social media faux pas since Justine Sacco’s disastrous tweet. That very fine line has tectonic implications for the actual human beings involved.

Now, I’m not for one second arguing whether or not the tweet was sexist, offensive, inappropriate or not. It was. It was poorly thought out. That said, there were thousands of brands who said dumb things on Women’s Day and maybe hundreds that said things worse than this. In fact I know of one example of a brand with an exponentially larger social media audience that did something that could easily have had more severe implications, and somehow it went unnoticed. Ironically enough almost all of these clumsy, ignorant attempts came from relatively good intentions. What is that saying again? Something about a road and HELL.

And hell is exactly where Bic’s marketing and branding teams are right now. Hell is where their local brand manager is. Hell is where the agency is. I cannot imagine a worse outcome for an agency. Do they deserve it? The ridicule and shame? The expense? Do they deserve to lose their jobs, and have their careers jeopardised?

I don’t think they do.

You might, but I don’t. I think these are ordinary people like me who did a silly thing and who are paying very dearly for it. (Then again, if a relatively ‘innocent’ person never texts and drives, and then one day happens to glance down at their phone on the highway and subsequently wipes out a pedestrian, they’re as guilty of murder as a serial killer is, right?)

I still empathise with the people behind the Bic disaster though. I empathise because I know that I’ve been doing the same work for nine years and over 200 brands, and I know I’ve done some dumb things. I know my team has done some dumb things. I know I sent an entire proposal for a project valued at R4 million to a client, but for some insane reason I wrote, in every instance of their name in the 32-page proposal, the name of their biggest competitor. Dumb. DUMB.

I got off scot-free though. I got off because I didn’t publish it online. The difference between standing up in front of a group of people and making a racist comment, and having someone video that incident and publish it online, is monumental. A published indiscretion has exponentially more power to destroy its creator than the billions of indiscretions that go unnoticed or unpunished by randoms every day. Had Justine Sacco joked about her trip to Africa to the person next to her on the plane, the absolute worst case scenario for her was a punch to the face and a seat change. But putting it on Twitter ruined her life.

The public shaming and lynching of people and companies who do and say idiotic things online is fun. I do it. I’ve done it. It’s only when it’s us or someone we love that is the target of the ridicule that it becomes somewhat less entertaining. It’s easy to tell your bank or ISP or car brand to f*ck off and die on Twitter. It’s somewhat tougher to tell that to the ambitious, idealistic and impressionable 26-year old youngster sitting behind the laptop at the time to do the same, especially to their face.

Nobody really wants to be friends with brands online. They want to transact with brands. They want to be friends with people. It’s only on the very rare occasion that brands break that barrier but it comes with ridiculously high levels of effort and engagement. We’re only too happy to destroy brands online because, well, we don’t have to think about the human beings behind them. If you knew for example that ten people (ironically many of them women) would lose their jobs as a direct result of Bic’s blunder – not the incident itself, but rather the public nature of the shaming of it – would you have acted differently? Would it have made you think twice? Does the punishment really fit the crime? What if the magnitude of the indiscretion sparked a suicide attempt? Still fun?

I don’t think we’ve quite yet understood the astonishing power – good and bad – that being published on the Internet really holds for ordinary people. I don’t think we fully appreciate the potential butterfly effect of our published opinions. I don’t think we always consider the blurred lines between the brands we love and hate, and the real human beings behind them. I think we owe it to ourselves as an intelligent and critical audience to be conscious and deliberate about what we do and say online. I would want to suggest asking the following questions before you publish anything online, but more particularly, when you publish criticism online:

  1. If I knew this piece of content was going to be posted up on a billboard on the front of my employer’s headquarters, or on the front page of a daily newspaper, with my name and profile picture on it, would I still post it?
  2. If this criticism and the subsequent implications of it were levelled at me, or my family, or my friends, or at the company or companies that they represent, would I feel the same way about it?
  3. If I knew that this piece of content had a material, negative impact on some other person’s wellbeing, even if that person was fully or partly to blame for the indiscretion, would I still publish it?

Jim Jefferies, the Australian comedian, recently had a skit about gun control go viral. In it he jokes, but with startling truth, that the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) made more sense when both the government and the people had muskets as their primary weaponry. He says the advantage of a musket is that it gives you time to think about whether or not you want to shoot the person you intend to shoot (ha ha). Similarly, freedom of speech means one thing when you are writing down your thoughts on a pen and paper, sleeping on it, and mailing it to someone the next day. But social media as obliterated any barrier to publishing, and with it, often the necessary thought and deliberation required to form a compelling argument.

The pen is mightier than the sword, and the internet sure as hell is mightier than the pen. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of responsibility for what you say.

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  • Rich Mulholland

    Well said.

    I’m willing to bet though that despite the absolute shit-storm this caused I Bic doesn’t sell a single lighter less.

    • Neil Duly

      Lighter or Pens. Consumers don’t buy the pens and everyone who has a Bic lighter probably stole it :P

      But even their Social Media Following grew during this.

  • Rich Mulholland

    Because, social media.

  • Travis

    It’s not the agency that should shoulder the blame here. It’s the idiotic client. If they signed off on that ad, then they’re totally tone-deaf and oblivious to the ethos of the age. If they didn’t sign off, then they don’t take social media or their brand seriously. But please, anyone who let that ad go shouldn’t be in advertising in the first place.

    • Gregory S. Balchin

      tone deaf to the overly-sensitive internet echochamber of anti-pronoun idiots?

      or just normal people?

      because i promise you, the way normal people talk and behave, would not go down well with the new generation of overly-PC tumblr dwellers.

      normal men and women say “hey guys” and don’t think for a second that it’s there to reinforce the patriarchy and excludes women.

      normal men and women buy hot wheels for boys and barbies for girls, and don’t insist that toy companies/shops gender-neutralise their offerings.

      the issue that the poor bic team faces is only a problem on the internet. normal people kinda get where they were going with that image, and don’t really know what the fuss is about.

  • Jon Ronson wrote a great book about this new form of public shaming, it’s a good read: “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”

    I too understand all to well that you can make mistakes when it comes to creating content and then sharing the content online. Just like people get a kick out of creating great content there are people that have this strange connection with angrily tweeting about things that under normal circumstances would not garner even close to the reaction.

    This whole inter-connectivity thing is still very new for us. At the moment the pendulum is still at an extreme end of the swing. It’s going to be a while until the pendulum settles in a reasonable center spot.

  • Jon Ronson wrote a great book about this new form of public shaming, it’s a good read: “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”

    I too understand all to well that you can make mistakes when it comes to creating content and then sharing the content online. Just like people get a kick out of creating great content there are people that have this strange connection with angrily tweeting about things that under normal circumstances would not garner even close to the same vocal reaction.

    This whole inter-connectivity thing is still very new for us. At the moment the pendulum is still at an extreme end of the swing when it comes to reactions online. It’s going to be a while until the pendulum settles in a reasonable center spot. At least, that’s my opinion, and now it’s out there.

  • Brian C

    I’ve read about situations far more innocent where, people are fired, receive death threats and cant find work because if you search their name online you get all the negative backlash – some agencies are including this as a service to push all that negative media down the SERP’s. The repercussion are real, serious and long lasting, whereas people comment and forget about it an hour later.

    Social justice is hardcore and people are still learning the hard way.

  • (I don’t think Bic makes fine line(r)s?)

    People enjoy dogpiling, and this is just what happened. Bic as a brand won’t really gain or lose from this from a business perspective, and people will be a bit more careful about what they say about women for a month or so. Then everything will be back to status quo.

    Same as Cecil the Lion stuff, same as it ever was.

  • Pingback: Perspectives on BIC's ongoing disasters with women - Tomorrowtoday - Tomorrowtoday()

  • Jen

    I run the social media accounts for my brand. I am in no way qualified to do this other than 43 years of hard-earned common sense. But I get it wrong, and I get it wrong often because I am human. There is nothing more awful than even a tiny flurry of outraged @ signs when you’ve made an innocent error. I look on with horror when the Twitter mob turns on brands. I get it but it’s uncomfortable – perhaps because I am not a millennial. It doesn’t feel good looking at other brands jumping on the smug bandwagon – with entirely no empathy or sense of karma to gloat over another brand’s mistake. I unfollowed one account doing fantastic work who tweeted Ellen Degeneris to alert her to the ad – I had a vision of them standing in a mob calling over more people to stone the victim. Finally I saw a FB entry saying if we weren’t offended by the post it’s because we are so entrenched in the patriarchal mindset of SA that let it pass in the first place. I think there are brighter beacons of endemic cultural misogyny out there – our very own President being the brightest. I would never police the outrage but it makes me feel infinitely uncomfortable for its lack of empathy. There are people behind the brands – who yes, should know better – but ask yourself always – would you march into that person’s office and call them names and shout at them – probably not. I for one felt like going out to buy a pack of lilac and pink bic pens (for my 5 year old daughter :)) just to support them in their crappy day.

  • KeenyKeenz

    I’m glad you wrote something about this.
    We really do need to consider so many questions for each piece of content we publish – one of which should be, “What do we want people to do or say once they’re read/viewed this content?”.
    For me, the equally important responsibility lies in taking accountability and responding to something instead of reacting – and I think that’s where Bic fell monumentally short. We can pre-empt mistakes/misunderstandings but when they happen, however they happened – be authentic and take responsibility.

    Operationally/Practically this taught me – Don’t leave the offending post up 45mins after you apologised (the first time). Don’t rush to an apology (you’ll have to publish a second one). Don’t pass the buck. Don’t publish weak content.

    More importantly I think we need to be far more forgiving and compassionate as people who work in the digital space – in the digital space. It’s like we’re all waiting with a bucket of tar and feathers. Discourse is important, but let’s stop acting like angels.

  • Yolande Erasmus

    This isn’t new – Bic has historically thought that putting a flower on a bit of plastic is a sure-fire way to draw women into spending heaps of money. See Amazon reviewers lambaste the self-same topic circa 2012:

    So about two years ago Bic SA made lighters with pictures of lipstick on them to sell to ladies, because gosh darn I need a pretty lighter to validate the heck out of my femininity. When this hit facebook, no one paid any attention, I’d like to think that’s because the campaign, while being ridiculous, was largely inconsequential. Now, someone is paying attention – and it’s like a snowball.

    All the while, the irony of other brands essentially saying ‘because you are a woman, you like shopping and you drive slowly, let us insure you’ is lost on absolutely everyone. Even though it happens every day, not just once a year.

    • Neil Duly

      While the actual social shift is towards equality.

      What was pretty sad to me about this whole thing was how many women didn’t think there was anything wrong with being told to think like man. I’d be sad if that’s what my niece believed.

      • Yolande Erasmus

        Absolutely. I’m curios to see if they reconsider the way they market towards women, though I do not believe they will. And I don’t think other brands will take this as instructional either. What’s apparent, is as you say: how many women don’t see this as patronising. It’s scary.

  • Neil Duly

    In principal I agree , but in my travels I have come across a few agencies that feel that ‘doing digital’ involves just hiring a kid that can open up accounts and watches youtube all day. Old problem but it still happens.

    Not all people being paid to do work are professional. And I don’t know many experienced community managers that would have posted this.

    Social media needs to be filtered through at least an experienced person/s or have a few people play the red team from different backgrounds. I think more and more brands are being caught because agencies and brands are overlooking the basic skill-set needed.

    A lack of either increases the risk. Had I not had my short time at cerebra , being mentored and having met mentors, I probably wouldn’t have seen the issue with this content because I wouldn’t have that filter now.

    I think design agencies are too quick to take on ‘digital’ and ‘social-media’ without really considering the risks and resources.

  • I could not agree more!

  • Steve

    Sometimes you have employees who can avoid this kinda stuff for the most part, other times you have those who create it, and on the very rare occasion you have a team or individuals that can anticipate it. But much like death, taxes and Keith Richards, angry social mobs are unfortunately not going anywhere anytime soon. I’m certainly not saying Bic’s horrendous attempt to be relevant doesn’t deserve a few raised eyebrows at the very least, there are zero arguments there, what I’m more disappointed with is their response or lack thereof afterwards.

    They have an opportunity to do something off the back of the incident to incite real emotion, tell a real story and come up with an empowering message & campaign off the back of it. Sure it’s not the ideal platform to do so but whether they like it or not they have eyeballs on them right now, a lot of them (and from all over the world to boot). And if they’re smart about it they can put together something clever, and if shaped correctly, something that can completely change the focus of this mess for them. What have they chosen to do instead – Stick their heads in the sand in the hope for it to go away quicker.

    They can very easily avoid being #7 on the future Buzzfeed article “The 10 WORST social media blunders”, and rather change the situation to be #1 on the more positive “5 ways to bounce back from a social media crisis” piece. Right now their lack of reaction is the equivalent of trying to sweep it under the rug, rather than embracing and overcoming the issue (however uncomfortable it may be or however many brain cells it might require). Their silence is deafening, and is louder than any insert-apology-template-here message they think will do the trick. They have the power to turn the tens of millions of negative media value into something positive, but whether or not the likes of Emma Sadleir will be talking about them in her next presentation is entirely up to them…

  • Shane Louw

    This was a very interesting post to read, and i can’t agree more. Content is really important.

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