Paperchase apology: does the mob rule of social media make cowards of brands?

By Richard Ware

24th November 2017

The mob has spoken. Paperchase is the latest scalp taken in Stop Funding Hate’s campaign against brands advertising in corners of the media. Hitting the headlines, it’s a great PR coup for the pressure group and no small headache for Paperchase.

It is a complex debate with a number of factors at play: the strength of some public feeling about certain newspaper brands, the responsibility of brands spending money with media, and the impact of social media on how brands act.

Given the furore over this, and the column inches it has been receiving, are marketers getting the right advice about the context of where their brand appears? Ultimately, decisions will be made based on what the brand is looking for and what it needs to achieve from its paid media strategy. For Paperchase, a promotional campaign for wrapping paper in the lead up to Christmas would naturally lend itself to the reach and audience offered by the Daily Mail on a Saturday. The value of a front-page banner makes sense; it will drive awareness, footfall and sales.

But the world has moved on. We have Twitter and Facebook, and the power of the crowd.

The immediate and cumulative nature of a social media ‘storm’ will send brand-side decision-makers, and their agencies, running to the boardroom for a crisis meeting to face the dilemma: carry on or capitulate.

Are we now in a situation where Twitter has made total cowards of brands? The apology from Paperchase is quite astonishing in its tone.

 

 

This is a brand that stands for ‘exciting and innovative design-led stationery’, running a season promotion for wrapping paper. Now it is grovelling in public after a social media battering.

The deputy editor of the Sunday Times said on Newsnight that this was about a ‘company being bullied’, and the strength and tone of Paperchase’s apology reflects this thinking. It certainly raises the issue of brands becoming paralysed by the fear of offending someone, somewhere, in some way – a fear made all the worse by Twitter and Facebook.

Stop Funding Hate doesn’t hide its intentions; it does what it says on the tin. The organisation made it clear in its launch video how it will call out advertisers online through screen grabs and videos, and that supporters should ‘share and like’ on social to apply pressure.

This is the world of social media sentiment: quick and easy, inflamed by emotion, and instantly gratifying. The desired result in this case is to hit the media where it hurts: advertising revenue. The press has always depended on advertising. As physical sales have floundered, advertising revenue in its various forms has become crucial to the survival of our commercial media. An attack on the revenue behind particular media brands cannot be anything but an attack on the existence of the brands themselves.

But this situation feels like it has impacted Paperchase more than the Daily Mail, which goes against the point of it really.

The Daily Mail has even called Paperchase’s statement ‘disingenuous’, given they are not a regular advertiser, only ran one promotion and ‘had no plans for any more’. And after Lego’s very public display of withdrawal last year, Campaign did some digging on the fact that the brand was actually spending very little with the publication.

There may be some PR value in supporting Stop Funding Hate’s ethical stance – something that Evans Cycle has previously done – but where is the proper investment from brands in driving positive change in line with such views? City AM’s business features writer called the withdrawal of advertising by Evans Cycles ‘po-faced virtue signalling’ and a bad business strategy.

If you are going to make a stand, then something more sustainable and impactful is needed. Support the right causes through partnerships and action. Don’t just appeal to the blunt instrument of social media opinion, which is a short-sighted approach at best.

 

Free to disagree

We are lucky in this country to have a free press. We are able to have open debate. We may not always like what we read. We may fundamentally disagree with it.

Despite my own strong opinions on how social and political issues are being covered, it’s hard to agree with the idea of cherry-picking particular media to silence or brand advertisers to harass.

Debate, discussion and disagreement are fundamental to our society.

There is no doubt that this is a politically-charged issue. The Mail has blamed ‘a small group of hard-left Corbynist individuals seeking to suppress legitimate debate’. Owen Jones – never one to shy away from giving his opinion – claims it is a victory over a ‘cabal of hatred’, and that the ‘stranglehold of the right-wing press over our democracy is weakening’. It is deeply troubling to equate a co-ordinated attack on any section of the media as representative of democratic action.

Yes, pressure from public protest is how changes are made. But where do you draw the line? What is deemed as respectable by one pressure group is deemed offensive by another.  It has the whiff of double standards, made worse by our social media echo chambers. We also cannot expect brands to start influencing editorial decisions, pitting one brand against another in an erosion of church and state. John Lewis has made it clear that its role does not extend to ‘an editorial judgement on a particular newspaper’.

This is a debate that ignites passions. It raises fundamental issues over where we draw important lines, and questions how brands should act in the face of social media uproar.

Ultimately, we need and deserve a plurality of views: the ones we passionately support and the ones we vociferously oppose.