#RaceTogether is a debacle: The real reason why Starbucks, McDonald's and Coke keep failing on Twitter

Dark irony: The massive institutions responsible for our isolation trying to fix it with a cutesy hashtag

Published March 18, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

    (AP/Ted S. Warren)
(AP/Ted S. Warren)

Well, it’s only been 24 hours as I write this since Starbucks announced its #RaceTogether campaign and already it can safely be said to have transitioned from “experiment” to “debacle.”

The consensus is overwhelmingly against #RaceTogether, especially among pretty much every actual person of color I’ve heard weigh in on it--and, indeed, when I straw-polled my friends, it seemed that the more service industry experience someone has had the more gobsmacked they were that anyone could think it was a good idea.

The cliché when describing P.R. disasters is “Although at first glance it seems like a good idea…” No one has said that about #RaceTogether. At first glance it seems like a terrible idea. Conversations about race are incredibly difficult to have--we all know this. It’s hard when we have them with our close friends and colleagues. It’s hard when we have them in college classrooms when everyone there has volunteered to have their ideas challenged and debated.

But among strangers? Among strangers with a huge power imbalance--one set of strangers, employees, who are totally dependent on the other set, customers, for their jobs?

The question isn’t whether it’s a bad idea. It’s obviously a bad idea. The question is why anyone ever thought it was a good idea.

My theory? Marketers have made the cardinal mistake of drinking their own Kool-Aid.

The cringiest recent moments in corporate marketing have been corporations mistakenly thinking that the dull, routine interactions people have with them in day-to-day life can be repurposed into life-affirming moments of joy. There’s a certain dark irony in the massive institutions that are largely responsible for the alienated isolation of the average American taking on the task of fixing that alienation with cutesy hashtags.

I mean, take a look at McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, two companies responsible for creating the fast-food culture that has helped ruin our health, ruin the environment and ruin the economy. If it is a problem that we’re a society of lonely, callous individuals who are casually cruel to each other from behind the safety of a screen, then the impatient, impulsive me-first consumerism promoted by such companies is surely part of the problem, not the solution.

And yet here the marketers come, pretending that their brands are a healing force in the world, boldly announcing their good intentions in the form of very expensive Super Bowl ads.

Surely victims of cyberbullying and Internet harassment--an issue that came to a head in 2014--will feel better when their good “friend” Coca-Cola reassures them with a #MakeItHappy tweet, even if the reassurance is coming from a purely automated script put up by employees who are obligated by law to maximize profit for shareholders.

Surely the loneliness and callousness of modern life--a loneliness exemplified by the act of standing in line at McDonald’s, waiting to order mass-produced junk food from people paid literally unlivable wages to churn out as much of it as possible--will be alleviated if some McDonald’s employee, acting on orders from a corporate marketing department, impulsively saves you a couple of dollars by letting you “pay” by kissing your significant other or by calling your mom.

Yes, the most obvious reason for both of these campaigns is to simply raise “brand visibility” for McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, in the form of schmaltzy viral videos for the former and “retweet-ready” ASCII art for the latter.

But it seems to me these can’t have just been canny attention-grabbing campaigns--if they were, they wouldn’t have backfired, and boy howdy did they backfire.

No, someone somewhere got their wires crossed and somehow believed that they could take these hashtags to Twitter, of all places, and avoid being ripped to shreds by snarky backlash--and seemed genuinely pained when Gawker fed a mindless bot the text of "Mein Kampf" to point out how ridiculous it is to ascribe redemptive qualities to anything a mindless bot does.

Why? Well, look at those little hashtag marks in front of “Make It Happy” and “Pay With Lovin’”--these campaigns were centered around social media. And social media is all about stringing together little performative acts—a tweet, a blog post, a photograph--one by one into a social identity. And usually that identity is somewhat at odds with the offline version of you; social media is aspirational, consisting of all the moments we want to share, the ones that make us look most attractive, most admirable, most successful.

Sometimes it goes beyond stretching the truth to outright lying about who we are. And worst of all is when we start to believe the lies ourselves.

And brands--or, more specifically, the people hired to run brands--are not immune to this.

In the aftermath of Gawker magnificently trolling the #MakeItHappy campaign Sam Biddle wrote a pained reaction piece lamenting how Coca-Cola having a Twitter feed run by someone paid to act like just another one of us tweeps successfully got people to defend Coca-Cola like it was one of their “friends.”

But it seems like those true-believing customers are relatively thin on the ground. Far more interesting is Biddle’s assumption that the people behind #MakeItHappy were acting as master Machiavellian manipulators, consciously trying to play the rubes for their eyeballs and clicks.

I doubt this. I’ve had my own brush with the marketing/advertising/P.R. space. No one in that world is as consciously nasty and cynical as Hollywood satirists like to paint them. If they were, they might actually be better at their jobs overall--but they’d likely also have so much stress-related turnover they’d be unable to function.

Instead, every time I’ve dipped my toe into the world of marketing and selling stuff I’ve been immersed in an almost stifling culture of positivity--been beaten over the head with the repeated message that to sell a product you must “believe in the product,” to represent a brand you must “believe in the brand,” that the attitude to cultivate is sincere, passionate intensity about what your brand “means.”

This is why it makes headline news when a brand is ever willing to acknowledge online snark about itself, even when the snark is overwhelming. I don’t think this is because relentless positivity makes for better advertising--quite frequently it seems to lead to disasters--but because it’s what people need to do for themselves, in order to be able to stomach making a living selling sugar water.

Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on not understanding it.” I don’t just mean that it’s difficult to get marketers to understand things like their company’s human rights abuses abroad, or the environmental impact of their operations, or other things customers generally also don’t know or care about.

I mean that marketers spend so much time immersed in their “brand” they start to fail to understand what all of us do, on a pretty basic level, understand--that Coca-Cola is a big giant money-grubbing profit machine and no amount of “branding” will change that. That there’s something surreal and creepy and, most of all, stupid about an actual human being interacting with us wearing Coca-Cola’s name on Twitter and pretending to “be” Coca-Cola.

I feel like social media is almost designed to encourage marketing flacks to forget this--the ease of immersing yourself in a constructed identity online already causes people to lose their grip on who they really are when they’re doing it pro bono. When people spend all their time “being” McDonald’s or Coke online they forget that we don’t see them as the living, breathing people they know they are but as the corporate mask they’ve put on. Which is why “brand accounts” on Twitter regularly do horrifically, shockingly offensive things like butt in on conversations about 9/11 because they forget that everyone else doesn’t see brands as people.

We shouldn’t be surprised. All of the positive value social media has delivered for corporations in the past has been by humanizing what by nature can’t be humanized. Frank Eliason pioneered this with the @ComcastCares account, interacting directly and personally with frustrated Comcast users--back in 2009, when “Twitter users” were still a small, cliquish, easily manageable subset of the population.

Comcast, of course, did have and still has a legendarily bad reputation for customer service. This is not any individual person’s fault--this is the result of Comcast being a huge, unwieldy organization trying to serve too many people with too few staff members, reacting to perverse economic incentives. Comcast doesn’t “care” because Comcast can’t care--Comcast is a huge group of people who all care about different things and who are brought together by a system that is broken.

But Frank Eliason cared, and for a brief, shining moment it seemed like Comcast cared because one guy pretending to be “Comcast” on Twitter was able to deal with the tiny subset of Comcast users who were also on Twitter, as a human being talking to other human beings.

Scale that up, though, once Twitter gets widespread adoption? And @ComcastCares gets as clogged and backed up and dysfunctional as every other Comcast customer service channel. The little human moments everyone celebrated back when @ComcastCares was “rogue” go by the wayside once you try to scale them up past a human to a corporation.

It may well be that an individual McDonald’s employee, or McDonald’s manager, seeing a customer going through a hard time gives that customer a break and pays for the cost of their meal out of pocket. That’s a genuine moment of human connection. Turning this into a promotional program and ordering employees to do this on a quota basis? That’s exploitative and creepy.

Finding someone who’s being bullied or harassed online and using your platform to stand up to the bullies? Heartwarming. Setting up a bot to automatically do this on a mass scale? Stupid and pointless.

This is the distinction we human beings automatically get--the basic truth that homogenized, corporatized acts of human kindness aren’t human anymore--but that marketers seem to miss because their salary depends on missing it.

And it’s why the #RaceTogether fallout makes me sad more than angry. Because it appears that Starbucks, far more than McDonald’s or Coca-Cola, has drunk very deeply of its own branding brew.

There’s still a chance that #MakeItHappy and #PayWithLovin were purely cold, cynical marketing ploys, unlikely as it seems to me. They, at least, played it safe, avoided controversy, cast the personified “McDonald’s” and “Coca-Cola” as “people” everyone could like--a friend who just wants everyone to get along and love each other.

#RaceTogether clearly wants to be more than that. As far as any national brand can be “one of the good ones,” Starbucks is trying--I give them genuine props for going much further than most corporations to acknowledge how tough their hourly-wage employees have it and try to take steps, if modest ones, to fix that.

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, seems like a well-meaning guy. For all the talk of how other hashtags were plugged into the social media “conversation” about vague generalities like “negativity” or “alienation,” Schultz acknowledged that the biggest “conversation” we had last year was about a very specific form of “negativity,” anti-black violence in this country.

The forums he held sound like they were successful--largely because they were a safe space for Starbucks employees to talk on equal, common ground with each other about their own experiences.

But there was a limit to how far Schultz could take this as an individual, behind closed doors. He apparently wanted to translate his personal experiences with transformative, meaningful moments of human connection to the entire country by using the weight of Starbucks’ branding muscle.

Isn’t that the logic of capitalism, the seductive promise of the corporation, that it can seamlessly “scale up” good intentions? Just hire a million front-line employees and order them to do what you did--write a mission statement saying “Comcast Cares” or “Don’t Be Evil”--and boom, you’ve successfully saved the world.

As with every attempt to leverage corporate capitalism to accomplish some goal other than selling shiny products, it’s doomed to failure, and obviously so. The tragedy is that the people doing it can’t see it--not just because their salary depends on it, but their sense of self-worth, their belief that they’re doing more than just piling up profits for shareholders.

Well, whether or not the originators ever acknowledge it, the rest of us get the sublime entertainment of watching well-meaning hashtag debacle after well-meaning hashtag debacle implode in real time. Maybe eventually we’ll learn that the mismatch between ideals held by people who speak for corporations and the logic by which corporations operate isn’t an exception, but the rule.

By Arthur Chu

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Arthur Chu Editor's Picks Howard Schultz #makeithappy Mcdonalds Race #racetogether Starbucks Twitter