Social media hashtags can be a powerful thing. They can help fuel revolutions that topple entire governments, they can spark national conversations about serious issues, they can be a powerful organizational tool.
One thing they’re not: effective marketing gimmicks.
That is a lesson the PR team that works with Bill Cosby learned just this week after their meme generator and accompanying #CosbyMeme was quickly co-opted by the public to shine a bright light on the serious allegations of rape made against him that have gone unanswered for years.
Bill Cosby’s official Twitter account, which has nearly 4 million followers, tweeted out a photo of the comedian along with the hashtag and a link to a page where the public could make their own versions, overlaying their own text atop various photos from throughout his career.
But if his social media team were hoping to plug into a younger generation not raised on Fat Albert or the Cosby Show, they were quickly disappointed. In a matter of hours, hundreds of people used the tool on Cosby’s website as a platform to talk about the sexual assault and rape allegations that were made against him a decade ago.
The first complaint was brought against Cosby publicly by one alleged victim in January 2004. A second came forward in an interview with NBC a year later, and that was quickly followed by nearly a dozen more. Several of the women recalled encounters with Cosby during which he allegedly drugged them, took them back to his hotel or some other private area, and sexually harassed them. One woke up in the back seat of her car, clothes disheveled and bra undone, and had no recollection of what happened the night before.
The initial suit was settled out of court and the whole affair disappeared from the media and public consciousness almost overnight. Every now and again though, someone broaches the subject again.
— E.J. Coughlin (@ejc) November 10, 2014
— Matthew Bramlett (@matthewbramlett) November 10, 2014
The New York Post chronicled some of the best examples from Twitter before Cosby’s team wised up. First they tried to install text filters that prohibited users from using words like “rape” and “rapist,” but once users found creative ways to get around those, they axed the entire tool and deleted the original tweet.
The people behind the Cosby meme generator really should have known better. Public relations firms and communications offices are lined with the corpses of similarly ill-advised hashtags, like McDonalds’ #McDStories, which predictably turned into a forum for sharing gross dining experiences at the fast food chain. Or the New York Police Department’s #mynypd, wherein New Yorkers began sharing their horror stories of being stopped and frisked or outright harassed by officers. And more recently, Washington D.C’s NFL franchise began pushing back against people calling for the team to change its racist name by promoting a website and accompanying hashtag #redskinsfacts.
That’s the inherent problem — or benefit, depending on where you’re sitting — with manufacturing hashtags for marketing purposes: the conversation might start on the terms set forth by whoever created it, but they rarely remain there.