Borkowski Weekly Media Trends 23-04-21

Influencers x Politics | Aldi vs M&S II: Cuthbert's Revenge | The Simpsons vs Morrissey | The Ratner effect 30 years on

London Mayoral Election: Influencers Descend on Politics

As we’re still fully comprehending the impact Donald Trump’s presidency had on democracy, which saw the former reality TV host galvanise support – in the millions – via social media, we occasionally have dystopian flashforwards to YouTube pranksters and D-list celebrities battling it out on a political platform as established as the London mayoral election. 

To give you a taste, check out a recent debate between Shaun Bailey and incumbent Sadiq Khan on BBC London’s YouTube page, you will see hundreds of comments shouting “NDL”. These are fans of YouTube prankster Niko Omilana who - polling at nearly 5% - seriously disrupting Sadiq Khan’s prospects of a landslide first-round victory. 

When a legitimate London mayor candidate (raised the £10k deposit required to enter the race via his channel’s ad revenue) has millions of loyal followers, their evangelical cult-like adoration can spread like wildfire. 

When we zoom out, the London election is full of novelty characters including Laurence Fox, Count Binface, and Max Fosh. They are projected to take key votes away from the serious candidates. According to a recent ITV poll, 12% of Londoners aged 25 to 34 said they would vote for Niko Omilana who wears children’s sunglasses and whose main policy is to force Boris Johnson to “shush”

Snapping back to political reality, Keir Starmer went viral when a pub landlord banished the Labour leader from his premises, which was caught on film. Trust and popularity for politicians is at an all-time low and we are edging closer to an internet celebrity winning a political mandate to govern. On the flipside, if we saw a career politician build a platform on social media to launch their brand, we could see the future of political campaigning unfold before our eyes. 

Caterpillar Wars 2.0: Cuthbert’s Revenge

Last week, we discussed how M&S has capitalised on the beloved characters (like the iconic Percy Pig) that front its various confectionary lines. This clever marketing, bolstered by M&S’s status as one of the nation’s favourite retailers, has given M&S much needed clout in its lawsuit with Aldi, who has ripped off M&S’ infamous Colin the Caterpillar cake. This week, it’s time to unpick the fight from opposition. 

For a start, M&S’ argument stands on shaky ground. As noted by an intellectual property lawyer in BBC News: ‘There are other caterpillar cakes on the market [Tesco's Curly, Waitrose's Cecil, Sainsbury's Wiggles, and Asda's Clyde the Caterpillar]. They should have taken a zero-tolerance approach from the start if they felt that Colin was so important’. Then, there’s the fact that M&S is guilty of product stealing too, as noted by this eagle-eyed fake-Toblerone spotter

What they maybe hadn’t banked on is Aldi putting up such a fight. This week, the budget supermarket took to Twitter to announce its plans to resume production of Cuthbert, its own caterpillar cake (which had been discontinued for months prior to this), to raise money for cancer charities. What is clever about this was their choice to invite rival retailers with caterpillar cakes to join them. The competing supermarkets jumped at the opportunity to join Aldi in the spotlight (and to add their carefully composed tweets to pile, like the good social-media savvy brands they are). 

But was Aldi’s use of charity here smart or misguided? In the end, it may prove the latter. What is dressed up as an olive branch feels more like a low blow. It’s a manipulative move, one that forces others to comply, lest they be seen to deny money to a particularly sensitive cause. Unfortunately for Aldi, the use of charity is not opaque enough to shield its true motives. Some might applaud Aldi’s brashness, but other customers might find this slyness dents any trust they had in the brand. 

There’s much to be learnt from the behaviour of these supermarkets, although its yet to be seen who will win the battle. What is for certain, though, is that it is a fantastic week for caterpillars. 

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Comms Blunder Time Machine: ‘Dulux Capacitor’

Exactly 30 years ago today (Friday 23 April) a cut-price jewellery mogul called Gerald Ratner made communications history by giving a speech to a rather auspicious audience in which he slagged off his own product first with a terrible joke about ‘crap’ glass wear and then with a marginally less unfunny comparison between his company’s earrings and M&S prawn sandwiches. 

What was intended as after-dinner repartee laid bare the genuine shortcomings of his offering and, legend has it, the speech wiped £500M off the value of his company, nearly running it into the ground. Thus, a communications axiom was born: Never slag off your own product publicly, even in jest (‘thou shalt not decry thine own supply’). 

Fast forward almost exactly 30 years to a couple of weeks ago and paint peddlers Dulux are being announced as an official partner of Tottenham Hotspur F.C. Nowadays the club is best known as a managerless European Super League dropout but back then, two weeks ago, it was one of the country’s most powerful sporting brands with hundreds of thousands of fans and millions of social media followers. 

You would think then that Dulux, as the less glamorous partner in the relationship, would have primed their entire comms operation to be on top form or, at the very least, not break any constitutional rules of the trade.  

Enter one plucky social media executive - clearly a disciple of the ‘kids TV presenter chumminess’ school of brand social that we’ve discussed at length recently- who promptly suggested that Dulux’s dog mascot could do a better job of playing centre back for Spurs than their actual players.  

Maybe Comms for Dummies hasn’t been updated to read ‘don’t slag off your shiny new brand partner either’… 

Dulux was forced into the most handwringing of apologies, promising an investigation as if it weren’t screamingly obvious that one community manager was, without paying any heed to the context, just following the usual brief of trying a bit too hard at banter and bonhomie in the relentless, uniform, Sisyphean bid to give a distinctly functional brand an edgy social media personality.  

Of course, the partnership did receive much more publicity than it would’ve normally thanks to the gaffe, so there is a slim possibility that instead of a jobsworth functionary we are in fact dealing with a genius…  

Eh bien, continuons… 

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Simpson’s Morrissey Prank: That Joke Is Funny Any More

A new Simpsons episode went viral this week (for the first time in recent memory) due to its not-so-subtle parody of Morrissey, who appeared as an Oscar Wilde-loving vegan poet called ‘Quilloughby’ voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. In the episode, Lisa falls in love with the teenage heart throb, only to discover later on that he is in fact a meat-eating, overweight xenophobe—a journey which reflects many young people’s difficulty squaring their love for the emotionality of The Smiths’ music with Morrissey’s controversial political views. 

Morrissey—who has an almost Azealia Banksian ability to alienate and antagonise his biggest fans—lashed back calling the episode ‘hurtful and racist.’ The parody plays on Morrissey’s recent notoriety for parodying and attacking minorities for eating meat, supporting the far-right For Britain party, and expressing sympathy for the anti-Muslim hatemonger Tommy Robinson.  

British media and social media seem largely sympathetic to the Simpsons’ hit job. (‘He only has his Big Mouth to blame…’) At least one Yahoo! news commentator gives the opposite point of view, but the salient point is that for the first time in probably over a decade, the world’s longest running comedy is being discussed at the water cooler for its current output rather than its past glories. For his part, Morrissey continues to see himself as a protagonist in the culture wars. He responded, “In a world obsessed with Hate Laws, there are none that protect me — free speech no longer exists.” The irony of saying this while effectively calling for a pretty tame parody to be censored probably bought the Simpsons a few thousand extra gleefully derisive tweets.  

If there’s a lesson to be learned here it’s that poking a Culture Wars antagonist with a sharp stick from a safe distance can be a reasonably successful means of generating positive publicity. How many comedians used Donald Trump as fodder for their viral moment? And just recently one of the world’s best manipulators of popular discourse Lil Nas X did the same thing by baiting Deep South fundamentalist Republicans into outrage by lap dancing Satan, and even if he only succeeded in infuriating a small and largely unrepresentative group of keyboard warriors and conservative media demagogues, his fans loved it. For the Simpsons the long diminishing grandaddy of comedy, the same tactic has reminded us all that it’s still there.