The social justice left is only truly strong when it exercises lawful power — such as when it runs your company, your school, or your government. Yet even then it’s often constrained by the Constitution, statutes, regulations, and contracts. When the social justice mob is confined to public shaming, its cultural power is limited to the credibility and seriousness others give it. In other words, if a target can withstand a week’s worth of hashtags, Buzzfeed will post another battery of kitten photos and pop culture quizzes (“What Does Your Fave ’90’s Cartoon Say About Your Personality?) and the angry kids will move on.
Sometimes, however, targets can fight back and actually profit off a social shame campaign. Just ask Protein World. Breitbart has the fun little story of a British company who found itself in the middle of shamestorm after running an ad campaign for nutritional supplements under the tagline, “Are you beach body ready?” Despite the fact that quite a few men and women actually want to be fit and lose weight, social justice warriors thought the campaign was “body shaming” and “purported violence against women.” They launched a change.org petition campaign, demanding that Protein World remove its advertisements, and feminist tweets started rolling in under hashtags like #everydaysexism and #everybodysready. Protein World refused to back down:
But then an astonishing thing happened: the company not only stood up to the [social justice warriors], but got on the front foot and mercilessly baited them on Twitter, in the process creating the now-infamous hashtag #growupharriet.
The company’s customers – surprisingly they are 84 per cent female, proving this wasn’t your standard man v feminist toe-to-toe – became feverish brand champions.
This was assisted by the brand’s defenders who scurrilously sabotaged the protester’s hashtag #everybodysready that attempted to show that any women, of any body shape, could be ready for the beach simply by putting on a bikini, which is of course an entirely valid point – just not to Protein World’s customers who are fitness freaks.
As both Breitbart and a British marketing magazine note, the financial results were astounding:
[Protein World] has turned a £250,000 media spend into a viral phenomenon. It has made a little known brand a household name in the circles it cares about. It has reaped £1million in direct sales revenue . . . Protein World has paid a price, of course – it is now also hated, a claim that few brands can make nor would want to.
It is, however, a calculated hatred, as those people out there who disapprove of Protein World’s brand of vanity-oriented self improvement are pretty unlikely to be purchasing its products anyway.
In a world where brands are still living with a 20th century mindset of trying to be all things to all people, having particular character and meaning is an increasingly valuable commodity.
This is a valuable insight. Capitulation doesn’t make the other side love or respect a company — nor will it make them buy the company’s products — but standing up for your products can be seen as equivalent to standing up for the choices and values of your customers. They’ll love you for it and spread the word. This is a lesson American companies — and American politicians — would do well to learn.