If there’s one thing the internet isn’t short on, it’s humorous pictures of cats. If there’s two things, it’s cats and outrage.

Outrage can get you fired for a poorly thought-out tweet. It can mobilise thousands of people to take a stand against something awful. And it can send a message around the world a hundred times with the simple click of a share button.

What causes that outrage doesn’t even have to actually be outrageous. Indeed, last year the very idea of an all-female Ghostbusters film caused some guys to be so outraged that they sent death and rape threats to one of the women starring in the movie.

Except, that wasn’t just a spontaneous burst of outrage, that was a cleverly designed piece of outrage marketing by a man named Milo Yiannopoulos.

What is outrage marketing?

It’s only natural that when something is plentiful, marketers will want to make money from it. And the appeal of outrage marketing is obvious – it makes a big splash from a little budget.

The audience who are actually attracted by outrage marketing is fairly narrow one. Young men are the primary target, particularly those who get a kick out of seeing other people upset or offended, and who believe the right to say what they want without consequence is more important than other people’s feelings or their right not to be the target of abuse.

This, for better or worse, is still a group big enough and with enough discretionary spending money to be worth targeting.

The trick to effective outrage marketing is to say something awful that focuses on groups your young male audience are already contemptuous of. Feminists, LGBT people, and “Social Justice Warriors” make common targets.

Then, rather than pitching your message straight at your target audience, you generate some outrage. Share the post to a feminist group. Pose as an LGBT ally and share a “disgusting” online ad. Even make a complaint about your own billboards – making sure the media hears all about it. Get enough of a reaction, and your target audience will see that by supporting your brand, they can invoke the same same reaction – they can upset people through buying your product.

This goes beyond just feeding the trolls, now they’re feeding you.

Outrage marketing is particularly effective if your brand is a person – shock jocks have been doing it for years. Every time Paul Henry says something deplorable, his ratings go up. He gets described as “just saying what ordinary people are thinking”.

Paul Henry

And in that way, outrage marketing is self-perpetuating. Your marketing becomes the subject of blog posts, Twitter arguments, and opinion pieces. Journalists, ever more pressed to fill their sites with content, will report on your marketing as if it is news.

Ethics? In my advertising?

To say there are downsides to outrage marketing is an understatement. Beyond just having to look at yourself in the mirror each day, you’re limiting your audience and actively alienating mainstream consumers.
And you’re giving encouragement and ammunition to people who get their kicks behaving in the worst ways the internet enables them to behave.

When Milo Yiannopoulos set up his harassment campaign against female Ghostbuster Leslie Jones, he became one of the few people permanently banned from Twitter. While this ban was actually a huge success for his brand – his fans were incensed, he was quoted in interviews, his reputation as “dangerous” was enhanced – Jones herself, and many of her supporters, were subject to an incredible amount of racist and sexist abuse. Outrage marketing often has real fallout that affects people’s lives.

Milo Yiannopoulos and Leslie Jones

Keeping up with the internet

The other downside to outrage marketing is that in general, it’s very short-lived. The internet has a short attention span and if you want to shock them for any real length of time, you have to go big or go home. Yes, if you’re marketing a person, they can say something else outrageous, but even that soon loses it’s shock value.

But you can you amp up the offensiveness of your message for so long before even your core group of supporters starts to back away from you. You’re left with only the fringes of the fringe, those who not only think it’s funny to offend people, but who truly believe the substance of what you’re saying.

Yiannopoulos himself found out this the hard way, when he made comments that appeared to endorse paedophilia. His true followers might have known he was only saying it for the look on people’s faces, but even to most of the trolls he’d mobilised, it was beyond what they were willing to pay for. In swift order he lost a major speaking engagement, a book deal, and his job at Breitbart News. And when you’re too awful for Breitbart, you are awful indeed.

The problem with playing to the trolls is that they’re fickle. Any hint of selling out, any hint that they might have been played, and they’ll turn on you. Brand loyalty isn’t a factor – the only factor is that you keep the entertainment coming. As soon as the lulz stop coming, they’ll look elsewhere for them.

Outrage marketing is one of those ploys cash-strapped advertisers with a few social media accounts see as a good idea to generate cheap publicity. But it can very quickly turn into a race to the bottom – is that a race your brand really wants to win?

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