Walmart and Cottonelle both made headlines last week related to videos featuring gay couples.
These videos were covered widely in LGBTQ media and even mainstream media outlets. The first, from Walmart, was released as an episode of a Facebook ad series, Love in the Aisle, in which two men go on a date in the chain store.
Cottonelle's video was a 15-second ad spot featuring a gay man who is anxious to meet his partner's parents for the first time. The toilet paper brand theorized that giving "your booty a confidence boost" might help in this dilemma.
It was not the videos themselves that made headlines -- although Walmart's anti-LGBTQ past makes its own clip notable -- but rather the controversies they stirred among conservatives on social media. The Advocate's headlines? "Cottonelle Defends Gay Ad After Homophobes Smear It." "Anti-LGBTQ Hate Group Goes Nuclear Over Gay Walmart Ad."
These controversies did not just happen accidentally, said Curtis Sparrer, a principal at Bospar, a technology public relations firm. Sparrer said these videos were part of a marketing strategy to spark conservative ire and attract media attention. Essentially, the brands are kicking the hornet's nest to harvest the honey.
"It looks like the marketers of both Walmart and Cottonelle were counting on social conservatives' outrage to drive their business objectives," said Sparrer. "Neither video was a traditional broadcast segment, but rather produced for social media. So conservatives didn't simply stumble across these segments, but rather they were alerted to them, likely by the companies themselves."
"There's a method behind the madness: marketers count on public reaction to their campaigns," Sparrer continued. "Conservatives can be reliably counted on to provide an immediate reaction to any pro-LGBT storyline, creating a newsworthy controversy for a journalist to cover. That media coverage will not only feature both sides of the controversy but also provide top-of-mind brand recognition that research has found is more effective than traditional advertising. That means social conservatives have become useful tools for marketers and public relations."
Conservatives could not resist becoming "useful tools" in expressing disgust about the Walmart and Cottonelle videos. For example, one Twitter user said the Cottonelle ad "make[s] me sick" and vowed to drop the brand. Within half an hour, Cottonelle responded to this user with an inclusive message that went viral: "Being clean impacts everyone, and it's an important step to feeling your best. Here at Cottonelle Brand, diversity is embraced in all aspects and we are proud to share a commercial that is representative of that. Thank you for reaching out."
Similarly, the American Family Association -- branded a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- was quick to release a press releasing slamming "Walmart's shift away from neutrality on this controversial issue to full support for same sex relationships." The organization also launched a petition for the company to return to its "founding principles." Headlines in outlets like Snopes and Yahoo News focused on this outrage and petition while also calling attention to Walmart's evolution toward LGBTQ inclusivity.
The Advocate routinely reports on antigay backlash to pro-LGBTQ advertisements. One Million Moms is another repeat offender and a reliable "useful tool" for advertisers. The right-wing group's slams of brands like JCPenney, Honey Maid, and Urban Outfitters for displays of queer inclusion have sparked dozens of headlines over the years and drummed up press for the brands the group had hoped to boycott.
Sparrer hopes anti-LGBTQ groups do not catch on to the strategy.
"As a marketer myself I am loathe to reveal this tactic because social conservatives might get wise and not take the bait the next time a campaign features LGBT people," Sparrer said. "However since I've been gay longer than I've been in marketing I am eager for the day when LGBT people can be featured in media and people will simply react to the spot on the merits of its content."