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Last week the UK wing of Carlsberg paid to have Tweets criticising its beer promoted into the timelines of British drinkers. It then released a series of videos in which company employees read out critical comments from social media.
The Tweets in question weren’t tame, either. The gentlest of the lot, and the only one I feel quite comfortable quoting in polite company, read, “Carlsberg tastes like a bitter divorce”.
Why on earth would they do this?
In short, because the Mean Tweets meme has become a go-to for brands looking to signal that their product is not merely new-and-improved but has undergone a total reinvention, and isn’t ashamed to admit it.
For the first part of the 20th century the hidden persuaders, as Vance Packard called them, had a relatively easy job. As technology advanced, products naturally improved, so there was often a real reason for consumers to upgrade: ‘The new Daimler – now with added roof!’
As time passed, however, substantial improvements became harder to wring out. And at the same time, people became cynical about firms advertising, say, washing powder that was apparently without fault in 1958, but paradoxically somehow better in 1959.
As a result, firms like Carslberg found themselves in a difficult place when their commodity products fell out of favour with the public – change the product and admit it probably wasn’t the best lager in the world after all, or struggle on, trying to squeeze PR value out of new logos, different shaped bottles, or values-based advertising?
The Mean Tweets approach seems to solve all of these problems, allowing previous missteps to be acknowledged with a sense of humour, with what feels like head-on honesty and (while the novelty lasts, at least) headline-grabbing quirkiness.
In March 2012, when Twitter reached its sixth anniversary, American late-night chat show Jimmy Kimmel Live! ran a segment in which celebrities read out abusive messages directed at them on the social media platform.
For example, comic actor Will Ferrell (sat on a toilet for no particular reason) read out, in a flat deadpan, a message from Jose which said: “Yo, Wil Ferrell ****** dum.”
The effect was to humanise the celebrities in question, to prompt reflection on those on the receiving end of such messages, and the sheer comic value of watching beautiful, successful, wealthy people confronted with the blunt opinions of their public.
As a YouTube video it went viral – the perfect feedback loop, social media users sharing a video about social media users – and thereafter became a regular feature on Kimmel’s show.
For many celebrities, this gentle humiliation became a rite of passage, and a key part of promotional tours for books, TV shows, albums and films.
In 2015, it even drew in Barack Obama who read aloud Tweets mocking his unfashionable jeans, grey hair and big ears. Although this video has to date garnered 59 million views, it might be where the rot set in: the Tweets weren’t really that mean at all, just enough to show the President as a good sport. Sincerity as spin.
Marketing and PR people soon added Mean Tweets to their arsenal of tricks.
In 2015, viewers of ad breaks in TV talent show The X-Factor saw staff from the Daily Mirror reacting to Tweets bluntly mocking its claim to be an “intelligent tabloid” in a campaign devised by marketing agency Quiet Storm.
Taking a slightly different approach, Scottish brewery BrewDog issued staff in its bars with T-shirts featuring negative online comments: “Garbage, over priced, full of *****. Cheese board is alright.” Mean Tweets in meatspace.
Fast-food chain KFC used Mean Tweets as the cornerstone of a major campaign in autumn 2018, paying Twitter to boost the reach of a critical Tweet from Charlie Burness, before launching a poster and billboard campaign featuring similarly harsh words from other customers. This, of course, trailed the launch of new recipe KFC fries.
There have been countless other examples, including several from charities and social causes. Those tend to perform a kind of bait-and-switch, luring people in with humour before delivering a hard-hitting punchline.
This looks like a quick, cheap, easy format to imitate, but there’s a surprising amount of sophistication required in the production of a Mean Tweets style video. Even the Daily Mirror didn’t really pull it off, or Head & Shoulders.
BrewDog’s approach – T-shirts rather than video – might be more applicable, although it was only really effective for them because the brand is built on being confrontational.
The boring answer is that though there is mileage to be gained from publicly responding to criticism, whether that’s in measured, factual responses to bad online reviews, or by using complaints as the inspiration for explanatory blog posts, most of us mere mortals should tread carefully.
There’s a risk of getting the tone wrong, for one thing – it’s easy to aim for self-deprecating but instead land on defensive, or Basil Fawlty.
Keep it calm, focus on conveying honesty and humanity, and use it as an opportunity to demonstrate how you’ve fixed the problem, though, and you might find an angle.