Chopper Read, Coles and Twitter: going down and staying down?

Curtis Stone and Normie Rowe in a Coles ad that has attracted the ire of a fake Chopper Read.

It is a very 21st century story. A Twitter account purporting to be that of noted Australian criminal Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read takes offence to an ad featuring ageing singer Normie Rowe and uses his social media popularity to call for a boycott of the supermarket chain.

Read is of course a popular culture icon in his own right, having been portrayed by Hollywood star Eric Bana in the award-winning film Chopper as well as having put his name to numerous “true” crime books.

But what does this strange scenario tell us about how the media, social and otherwise, operates in Australia in 2012? Chopper Read is famous for using his fists, and far worse, to attack opponents rather than a keyboard.

The Conversation spoke with University of Canberra social media researcher Julie Posetti about what Chopper - real or otherwise - taking on Coles demonstrates about how we live, shop and Tweet.

What does it say when a probably fake Chopper Read can attack a major brand like Coles on Twitter and get such a response?

I haven’t done the full research to determine if the @RealChopperRead account is indeed actually Chopper Read but in many ways whether it is fake or real is immaterial.

I would argue that even if they do know that it is a fake account then that may indicate that the source or the level of influence calling for action is less relevant than the cause itself.

Having reviewed the video which has gone viral via Twitter – the ad at the centre of all this – I certainly thought it was pretty lame, to use an unacademic term. It is also spurious. I think there is something distasteful and unethical about Coles’ claim to have hormone-free meat as if this is a claim to individual aversion of such hormones when my understanding is that this is the case with all supermarkets.

I think people were responding both to the colourful character that is either the Real Chopper Read or the Fake Chopper Read but also responding in a way that we now see as almost a commonplace Internet meme that has arisen based on strong feelings in response to a video or some sort of visual stimulus.

It is difficult to make judgements about whether this indicates some sort of fundamental shift in the Australian public sphere. I think it is highly likely that this is not so much a shift in terms of people’s responses but a shift in terms of the way in which people are being aggregated on social media.

Is this simply a means by which people can amplify what they would have thought anyway: “It is a crap ad”?

We are seeing an amplification of views, a faster uptake of resistance where any kind of rebellion, whether it is against a brand, or capitalism, is able to get traction more quickly online.

The reality is that despite some criticism of social media and its capacity to actually effect real change or real action, if this translates to people avoiding Coles for whatever reason, then the effect is significant.

These sorts of conversations were likely to have been going on pre-Twitter and pre-Facebook and pre-Youtube. They have been public conversations, albeit in public spaces that are less visible than Twitter, conversations that have occurred at the pub, or in the supermarket queue, picking up the kids from school, in the office, at the photocopier, whatever the scenario, these are the sorts of conversations that people probably would have had.

Even if this had been a traditional television ad it would have stimulated critique and it probably would have resulted in satirical takes. I can see Eric Bana, who played Chopper Read, doing something on one of those old comedy shows that used to be watercooler conversation starters back in the day. Before we blame Twitter or Facebook for a fundamental shift in who people trust and how they behave, think about that reality.

Can companies truly manage their brand on social media?

You have got to acknowledge, whether you’re a brand, a government, a corporation, a not-for-profit, or a media organisation for that matter, it is impossible to ignore the power of integrated, instant globally linked conversation now. A backlash can be very severe and have immediate effects, fair or not.

That is one of the issues we have to come to grips with. Ordinarily you would have had the traditional media as a filter in this, now they may respond by reporting on the Twitter effect rather than actually investigating the Coles marketing phenomenon itself.

Companies “managing” their brand is becoming almost a misnomer in terms of how we used to understand public relations and reputation management. Now it is much more about understanding the shift that is taking place and placing emphasis on engagement and appropriate responses and transparency, as opposed to the kind of traditional approach which might have been to hit back with very expensive advertising combined with spin and denial. That is not going to work in this environment.

We see a very large scale example of mixed approaches with the way Qantas handled its recent controversies.

Should Coles engage in this or just let it pass? And isn’t the fact that they got so many clicks still good publicity?

There is traction measured by hits and visits and purchases, which is fundamentally important in terms of retail. But there is also the important measurement of tone, and if the conversation is wholly negative regarding your brand then that has to be taken to into account.

Some of the more sophisticated social media monitoring tools are now focusing on tone as well as the traction that comes from mentions. There is that old thing which still rings true to a certain extent that there is no such thing as bad publicity but I think that there actually is (such a thing as bad publicity) and while it is good to have your brand being talked about, it is rarely a positive to have your brand being trashed.

I’m not a brand manager but my instinctive response, based on my research of social media communities and also as a consumer, is that ignoring it old school style is not going to cut it but perhaps a savvy social media manager for Coles might use humour and wit in engagement, acknowledge people’s reactions and use that as part of a response to this to try to defend Coles’ reputation.

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