Curtis Sparrer
Curtis Sparrer

The controversies surrounding recent social media video postings from Walmart and Cottonelle that feature gay men offer an object lesson in how negative reactions can actually work in a campaign’s favor.

Walmart’s spot focused on two gay men on a blind date at Walmart. Cottonelle posted a tongue-in-cheek video about a gay man feeling more confident meeting his boyfriend’s parents after using their toilet paper. 

The objective in each was maximizing visibility for a directed message to important demographic and psychographic audiences.  The messages focused on the companies’ valuing and commitment to social diversity and were aimed specifically at welcoming attitudes and sensitivities toward the LGBT community.

Targeted audiences were broader.  Yes, this was about capturing specific consumer attention. It was also to show employees and future candidates that the companies were diversity-friendly workplaces. It also sent a powerful message to investors and partners about the meaning of being “open” for business. 

What made these effective was that on cue anti-LBGT groups created an uproar. This enabled Cottonelle and Walmart to get vast exposure that “money can’t buy” from a hopefully viral ad.

It looks like Walmart and Cottonelle markers were counting on social conservatives’ outrage to drive their business objectives. The videos were produced for social media. Thus, conservatives didn’t simply stumble across them. Instead, they were alerted to them, likely by the companies.

There’s a method behind the madness: marketers count on public reaction to their campaigns. Conservatives reliably provide virulent reaction to anything pro-LGBT. It creates a newsworthy controversy. Media coverage will feature both sides of the controversy and provide top-of-mind brand recognition that research says is more effective than traditional advertising. That means social conservatives have become useful tools for marketers and public relations. 

As a communications professional, I am reluctant to reveal this tactic. Social conservatives may not take the bait on another campaign featuring LGBT people.  However, since I’ve been gay longer than I’ve been in public relations, I am eager for the day when spots with LGBT people are judged solely on the merits of their content.

Yes, I know that these are laudable long-term aspirations. In the short term, however, Cottonelle and Walmart were successful. Their plans were well designed and executed. Extensive visibility was achieved. And, ultimately, brand reputations were burnished, not diminished. 

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Curtis Sparrer is the Principal of Bospar PR. He has represented brands like PayPal, Tetris and the alien hunters of the SETI Institute. Sparrer is a member of the Forbes Communications Council and his writings have appeared in AdweekForbes, and Dallas Morning News.  He is a lifetime member of the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association.  Business Insider has listed him as one of the Top Fifty in Tech PR twice.