Year of the Troll: Brands Learn to Love Messing With Consumers

But are they risking trust?

Headshot of David Griner

Is JCPenney drunk tweeting the Super Bowl? Is Sports Illustrated putting Barbie on the cover of its Swimsuit Issue? Does Groupon really think Alexander Hamilton was president?

When each of these questions flared up recently, the answer was always the same: no, not really.

Welcome to the supposedly funny, largely frustrating new trend of marketers trolling consumers and journalists with what could best be described as “intentional fouls.” Brands are feigning questionable judgment, only to reveal soon after that it was all just a joke or (in the case of Barbie) much smaller in scope than people were led to believe.

Is this the new real-time marketing? Each brand saw a spike in online conversation and media coverage that PR pros dream of. But the volume of reaction was mixed, and it’s also likely that many consumers who saw the original stunt never saw the later “reveal.”

Case in point: JCPenney’s supposedly drunk tweets (“Who kkmew theis was ghiong tob e a baweball ghamle”) got about 40,000 retweets and widespread media coverage, but the follow-up #tweetingwithmittens hashtag only got used 7,911 times.

A few weeks later, Mattel and Sports Illustrated put Barbie on the cover of SI’s Swimsuit Issue with the hashtag #Unapologetic.

The stunt got more than 10,000 tweets before many realized the “cover” was an advertising wrap on a mere 1,000 issues, meaning few people would see the actual image on newsstands.

And Groupon’s Presidents’ Day announcement that it was “honoring Alexander Hamilton” with a $10 discount (Hamilton, of course, was never president, despite being on the $10 bill) yielded just 3,500 tweets.

The tenor of the online response to the stunts also has been mixed. Topsy, which measures the sentiment of social media activity, said the tweets about JCPenney’s mittens and Groupon’s President Hamilton were both 67 percent positive. The discussion of Barbie as swimsuit model was 39 percent positive, though, as many wondered if Mattel was baiting feminists.

So is the “intentional foul” a smart marketing move?

“Brands need to take a long, hard look at themselves before engaging in this kind of approach,” said Edelman Digital svp Dave Fleet. “For those with a playful identity and whose audiences are used to this kind of tone, the risk is lower, and this approach can break through the clutter.”

For less playful brands, the risk of reputation damage increases, Fleet warned.

“Trust in a brand is critical, and a perception of betraying that trust can do long-lasting damage to a company’s relationship with its customers,” he said. “That doesn’t mean ‘don’t do it,’ but it does mean companies should think twice about point-in-time stunts if they don’t fit with their brand.”

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."