Dawn of the Prankster

About two weeks ago, some disgruntled friends shared a story about Urban Outfitters apparently marketing a faded and blood-stained-looking Kent State college sweatshirt.  Then, in a follow-up story reported by Jordan Sargent in Gawker, an email sent by the retailer’s CEO Dick Haynes explains that the sweatshirt shown in their marketing materials was not representative of a new, purposely designed line of clothing but was a legitimately vintage item purchased at a Rose Bowl flea market and that the red stains on the shirt are not in fact blood.  The photo of the Kent State sweatshirt, according to the email, was being used to promote a new line of faded looks being offered by UO.  Assuming Mr. Haynes is telling the truth about the sweatshirt (and there is no reason to think he isn’t), the story is a pretty good example of so much that is wrong with marketing in the digital age.  In short, does the campaign reveal stupidity or ignorance?  And at what point do such distinctions cease to matter? Do the economics of the Internet expect everyone to become a prankster in order to win?

As Sargent rightly implies, the marketing team at Urban Outfitters almost certainly knew they were courting negative reactions by using the image of this sweatshirt because in the age of social media, controversy can be a great way to get campaigns to go viral. Still, it is not yet clear that “any press is good press” is a universally wise tactic for all brands.  Certainly, a brand can align itself on the side of certain issues, which can be a great link to customers whose values correspond with the brand.  But in the bizarre dynamics of social media, even a hater becomes an evangelist of sorts when he/she shares a story for the purpose of denouncing it.  If the story or campaign offends ten thousand people but appeals to one thousand customers, cha ching.  Not only does this achieve market penetration for pennies, but the people who hate your brand did your selling for you for free.  That said, this can be dangerous territory for a brand looking to build customer relationships over time. Being a shock-jock can backfire.  More importantly, brands and their marketing campaigns are themselves creators of culture and thus feed public consciousness, which is part of why I believe our reaction is so strong against this apparent trivializing of the Kent State shootings.  It becomes a form of revisionist history, which brings us to the question of ignorance in this story.

Jordan Sargent raises the possibility with regard to this sweatshirt campaign that “…various people involved in the transaction were too young to even realize the implications of selling a Kent State sweatshirt that looked like it was bloodstained”  This may be true, and if so, it is yet another unfortunate phenomenon of our times.  Despite the fact that we treated the dawn of Internet access as a great boon to education, we do seem to encounter frequent examples of digital natives achieving adulthood woefully ignorant of some rather significant cultural icons and events.  That anyone in the United States might enter the workforce, let alone in a communications role, without ever hearing of the 1970 shootings at Kent State is both extraordinary and, at this point, not the least bit surprising.  In fact, I personally wondered many years ago whether or not a glut of data (which is not necessarily information) might result in a decline in general cultural literacy.

It was the late 1990s, and I was creative director on a photo shoot in New York.  The photographer and I were joking around, making references to the Marx Brothers, and our comments were sailing over the heads of the models and assistants who were a good decade or so younger.  Who doesn’t know The Marx Brothers, I thought?  Their films were hardly contemporary when I was growing up; they were 40 years old.  Driving home from the shoot, I wondered if the volume and rate at which we were increasingly consuming sounds, words, and images might not have a deleterious effect on long-term memory of important cultural and historical items.  Add to this the ease with which information can be manipulated through the web, coincident with a general distrust of traditional news sources, along with marketers willing to gin up controversy to sell tee shirts, and you get a digital age Tower of Babel.

Perhaps one of the worst phenomena to manifest from all this is that it feeds moral absolutism, which believes the ends justify the means.  For a business owner, those ends might be selling some product, but in the world of civic affairs, this psychology produces more serious results.  We’ve occasionally seen hacktivists identifying as Anonymous meddling self-righteously in politics or in events like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and they’re free to make a mess of things once in a while because they can’t be held accountable.  It is the same psychology that produces the bottom-feeders at Reddit and 4Chan who would share stolen nude celebrity photos and produce rape and death imagery of Emma Watson in response to her speech at the UN on feminism.  But, interestingly enough, it is also the same psychology that produced a bizarre attempt to attack 4Chan.

In case you missed it, a site was created called emmawatsonyournext.com, which was purported to be the work of anonymous users at 4Chan and appeared to be hosting a countdown to the distribution of revealing photos of the actress.  But according to this story by Rich McCormick in The Verge, the countdown site was in fact a hoax and PR ploy designed to drive traffic toward a campaign to take down the 4Chan site for its exploitation of women.  Now, I personally don’t care if 4Chan disappears; it is of no value to anyone, and the only people who spend time on the site are either losers or FBI agents.  But this hoax of a campaign against the site is likewise exploitative of Miss Watson and the values of feminism, and even if it’s rather murky ends are anti-misogynist, its means are unacceptable.  Coincidentally, according to McCormick, it was Redditors who apparently identified the companies behind the hoax.

“Some Reddit users were able to sniff out the hoax before its countdown expired, and linked the company behind it to FoxWeekly, a site that plagiarizes from other news sources to solicit views and Facebook likes, and Swenzy, a company that sells followers, likes, and views.”

BUT . . .

According to other sources like The Huffington Post, the organization behind the Emma Watson leak hoax is called Rantic Marketing, except that there doesn’t appear to be any such company because, writes James Cook for Business Insider, “Rantic Marketing is a fake company run by a gang of prolific internet spammers used to quickly capitalize on internet trends for page views.”


I guess what I’m driving at is that the Internet can be kind of a cesspool of idiocy, self-aggrandized hackers, and exploitative opportunists all filtered through the manipulative algorithms of social media’s walled gardens.  And I think the truth is that, even as adults, we are not innately good curators or editors of the fragments of information with which we choose to be bombarded. If nothing else, who has the time?  When I think about the digital native generation growing up in this environment, it’s hard not to wonder if the biggest hoax of all might not be credited to whichever prankster first called this “the information age.”

© 2014, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • In theory, I think pranking is a good thing. At its best, in fulfills the traditional role of the court jester. Pricking pomposity and speaking truth to power. The pranksters that hijacked the creeping sharia hashtag were not only frequently hilarious, but also did a great job of mocking anti muslim bigotry. So I’m not sure it’s fair to lump all pranksters in the same group as the kind of stupid haired marketing twats we’re discussing here.

    That said, it’s fair to say that we’re increasingly seeing pointless, bullying, “punching down” pranking of the type you’re attacking.

    You may like this discussion thread which gives the phenomenon a well deserved kicking. (NSFW. Contains increasingly gratuitous uses of the c word and lots of rhetorical violence).

    • No question, Sam, my comments should be misconstrued to be anti-humor, even tasteless humor. That would be unreasonable since I have been known to bring a room to silence with a “did he just say that?” kind of joke from time to time. Thanks for the links!

  • I think we’re about to get a rather big dose of this (and a rebuke to the “greatest repostiory of knowledge” nonsense) over the next little while now that there is an ebola case in the U.S. Expect a lot of racist crap like this: http://www.snopes.com/media/notnews/ebolavaccine.asp drowning out actual useful information.

    I’ve wondered why Facebook hasn’t made a deal with (or just bought) snopes to have a link on their site, but I realize that Facebook makes much more money on bullshit outrage than on actual facts.

  • Interestingly, the term “information age” is attributed to Richard Leghorn, the head of a company that made spy cameras who later worked for U.S. intelligence agencies. http://www.quora.com/Who-coined-the-term-information-age

  • My social media ends up being bombarded by bogus dramatic news posts like planes crashing into elementary schools. Nobody even checks for references anymore or stops to think about how they are contributing to the plague of misinformation going on.

  • ever see a newspaper or magazine from the 1700-1800-1900 eras. just as full of crap as the internet. nothing new is nothing new.

  • Coincidentally, I made a pronouncement nearly 20 years ago that is quite close to Stephen Hawkings’ quote at the bottom of your blog: “In the Age of Information, the greatest threat to knowledge isn’t ignorance – it’s confusion.” The ability to manipate, overwhelm and deceive millions of people is easier than ever thanks to the Internet and social media, especially.

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