Sounding Board: When cyber-bullies attack

A conservative group of mothers took their protest online to criticize the name of a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor. What is the proper response?

By Len Lewis

There is nothing that sends a chill down the spine of company officials quicker than a consumer boycott or even the threat of one—especially in the age of social networking.

But how do you react?  Do you ignore cyber-bullying, vigorously defend yourself or just hope it will go away on its own?This issue came up for debate recently. It was not about “blood diamonds” from Africa or child labor in Asian sweatshops, but ice cream—specifically, a name that raised the ire of one religious group and has become an interesting study in marketing and consumer relationships.

Ben & Jerry’s, a division of Unilever and an icon of food humor since before hubby got chubby, got a rap on the knuckles after it launched a new flavor called “Schweddy Balls.” It is a fudge-covered rum ball ice cream named after a 10-year-old comedy skit on Saturday Night Live in which a baker of seasonal treats by the name of Pete Schweddy, played by Alec Baldwin, stated: “No one can resist my Schweddy balls.” It is not going down in the annals of comedy, but mildly amusing in a juvenile sort of way.

But a Tupelo, Miss.-based conservative Christian group called onemillionmoms.com, which is associated with the American Family Foundation, immediately sprang into action, telling the company they will urge supporters to stop buying its products entirely and thereby issuing a veiled threat that they would do the same for any store carrying it.

This is a group that has unleashed righteous indignation against a host of retailers and products, from J.C. Penney and Disney to Procter & Gamble and Dentyne chewing gum. The complaints have been either about their ads or getting them to pull their ads from television shows the group finds objectionable. Mostly it is about what they perceive to be anti-Christian sentiments or sex.  I do not know about the former, but cannot imagine there would even be an advertising industry without the latter.

Some stores took the path of least resistance and removed the item, although no one is willing to admit the reason. A spokesman for Ben & Jerry’s has been very diplomatic, saying that some chains have found the name too “irreverent” but the same number of stores that carried its other specialty flavors have this one as well.

Even the one million moms website printed the company’s response: “We’ve always been about having some irreverence and having some fun … We’re not trying to offend people. Our fans get the humor.” Obviously, some did not.

This happens all over to varying degrees and not only with private groups. A couple of weeks ago in the U.K., the Advertising Standards Authority banned an ad by Morrisons Supermarkets after parents complained it encouraged kids to pester them to visit the store for a chance to win a trip to Disneyland in Paris.

As I have said in these columns before, freedom of speech is a messy business. It is never tied up in neat little packages labeled right and wrong. Ben & Jerry’s has as much right to push the envelope as one million moms—or however many—have the right to object to it.

Personally, I do not respond well to threats from anyone or bullies of any persuasion. And this particular website, along with its “parent” group, has made more than its share.

But I spoke with a couple of executives who requested anonymity and the consensus is there is no universally accepted strategy. Only, that boycotts are tactical tools and each must be dealt with individually. 

There were, however, some suggestions. For example, media-oriented boycotts should not to be ignored because they can become widespread at the click of a mouse. In fact, they can offer savvy marketers an opportunity to establish a relationship with consumers that can short circuit boycotts or other actions at a time when the call for corporate social responsibility has never been louder.

But that does not mean capitulating to any group. It is simply an opportunity to engage them directly in order to clarify your position and to hear their concerns. No matter what you think of someone’s views, do not turn a deaf ear. You always want to know how they think—knowledge will always give you the upper hand in emotional, morally driven protests.

Other suggestions include developing some kind of an early warning system, since there is no substitute for being prepared. Another strategy is to talk to people in other companies that have been through the same thing to avoid mistakes they may have made.

One general point of agreement is that retailers need to develop a general strategy and make it part of their crisis management playbook.

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Communications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at lenlewis@optonline.net or at www.lenlewiscommunications.com.

This entry was posted in 2011 12 Article Archives, Columns and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.