Companies have corporatized political outrage.
Following last month’s school shooting in Florida, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would end all assault-rifle sales and increase the age requirement for gun purchases to 21. While many conservatives threatened to boycott the company, Dick’s locations around the country actually saw an uptick in potential customers.
After its announcement, Dick’s foot traffic increased almost eight percent compared to the week prior in blue states that voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Red states that voted for President Donald Trump also saw a slight increase by almost three percentage points, according to a breakdown by location data marketing company Reveal Mobile—which measured the numbers by organizing opted-in mobile location data from smartphones into audience segments.
By responding to the outcry over gun violence, Dick’s capitalized off the viral campaign #BoycottNRA. The New York Times piece breaking the company’s announcement was shared almost 30,000 times on Facebook. Social media analytics firm Sprout Social estimated that the number of Twitter messages containing Dick’s name jumped 12,000 percent over the previous 10 days.
The end result was increased foot traffic, and, presumably, higher profits.
Dick’s decision to publicly change policies in the wake of the outrage signals newer marketing campaigns that companies are employing to boost brand recognition. But not all companies are looking to promote, what the outraged regard as, positive reform: Many just want the brand recognition that comes with viral controversies.
The Outline noted in February how PepsiCo built an entire campaign around a remark its CEO Indra Nooyi made about Doritos marketed toward women. “Lady Doritos” took off on Twitter, earning hot takes from The Washington Post, Russia Today, Slate and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.
In an online media landscape exhausting every analyses, counter-argument and POV, corporations have architected a formula to hack and manufacture outrage through social media campaigns.
Last year, Pepsi also received a bundle of (mostly negative) press for its since-deleted television spot featuring Kendall Jenner co-opting the #resistance by drinking brand soda alongside protestors. Though Pepsi later apologized, the ad trended on Twitter and became seared into the minds of American consumers on both sides of the political spectrum.
Most corporations leveraging outrage for profit do so without committing the political rhetoric to their company ethos. Following the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., Dick’s discontinued the sale of assault rifles, only to later push them back into circulation through its hunting chain, Field & Stream.
As companies continue siphoning off advertising budgets to marketing departments, cheaper campaigns built off party polarization arise: more American citizens engaging with the political system for the first time presents new opportunities for corporations to reinforce pre-existing power structures.