Coffee chain Dunkin’ Donuts was forced to publicly address rumours it would be offering an abortion at one of its locations after parody site Clickhole ran an article saying it would be performing an abortion as part of a scheme to show pro-choice solidarity.
The fake news story, which cites a statement from the brand that they would “be taking all measures to ensure the environment will be sterile and completely safe for the procedure,” and “the patient will receive a free egg and cheese sandwich and a medium coffee” asked customers to weigh in using #DunkinAbortion.
Despite the absurdity of the parody article, some customers actually shared their thoughts on the issue. According to TweetReach, the hash tag was seen by 261,471 people.
It didn’t go viral but there was enough chatter that the coffee chain felt the need to post a statement on it via twitter saying: “Clickhole is a parody site and not intended to be taken seriously and there is no truth to this article.”
“Many of those tweets were from people affiliated with Clickhole or (parent company) The Onion which means that they were propagating this to the twitter world,” explains Seung Hwan Lee, associate professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Retail Management. “I noticed that Dunkin Donuts abortion-related tweet was only tweeted 800 times (and) while 800 sounds like a lot, I wouldn’t quickly call it a ‘viral’ activity.”
While the majority of those on social media are aware of parody sites like The Onion or Clickhole, the real danger for brands is when a story like this gets passed around so much the initial source of the news is lost in the fold say June Cotte, associate professor of marketing at Western University’s Ivey Business School.
“This sort of misunderstanding is becoming increasingly common, especially on micro-sites like Twitter, where context is missing,” she says. “Enough people were taking it seriously that I believe the company was correct to respond.”
Cotte notes that websites like the Onion and Clickhole publish dozens of these fake news articles in a day, many about brands, but there’s usually enough context in there that the reader will know its satire.
But social media creates challenges for parody sites. Twitter’s 140 characters, for instance, doesn’t allow much room for context.
“Back in late 2014, Facebook was toying with the idea of putting satire tags on fake news sites,” says Lee. “There was a bit of backlash against that because people thought Facebook assumed that people were dumb – but clearly, if people are sharing news, it is because they find it to be somewhat believable.”
But savvy brands know viral news can impact their brands, even when they have nothing to do with it so they will actively police fake news and keep tabs on it to quash rumours and control the message.
“When the iPhone 6 was released, there was a viral video that showed that the phone bends when you put it in the pocket,” says Lee. “Apple responded, ‘yes there are few phones that did this, but this was not a major problem as people touted it to be’ – Apple released and responded to this right away and now no one talks about it.”
But silence, is never the answer.
“Any interesting, funny, catchy story – whether real or made up – has the potential to go viral,” says Antonia Mantonakis, a marketing professor from the Goodman School of Business at Brock University. “Given that any person, marketer or consumer, can Tweet something that can get picked up and re-Tweeted and spread, brands have to always be cautious about what people are saying about them.”
She says consumers may be expecting the brand to step up and respond to the news story, even if it is parody.
“If the fake news about the brand has gone viral and there is no response, consumers might just keep talking negatively and the fake news will continue to be spread,” she says.
Crafty brands, on the other hand, can turn the viral news into a positive opportunity.
“If you look at the story of Chik-fil-a, they actually experienced a rise in sales that year amidst their stance on same sex marriage,” says Lee, referring to the restaurant chain’s chief operating officer declaring his opposition to same sex marriage. “While it may have been a negative publicity at the time, it opened doors for discussion in the community.”
In the right situations, humour can also be a powerful tool for dealing with viral situations affecting brands, says Lee.
A prime example is a recent situation where a female passenger at WestJet tweeted a picture of some random guy’s clothes and five cans of beer mysteriously stashed in her luggage. She notified Westjet and went to social media as a way of complaining about finding random items in her baggage.
WestJet’s response via Twitter: “What happens in Vegas.”
“It was a clever response,” says Lee but one he doesn’t think would have worked for Dunkin’ Donuts.
“Had they gone with some clever response, DD might have been attacked for being insensitive about the topic of abortion,” he says. “In this case, a more formal response was probably required.”
Overall, Lee says he thinks the company did a good job of addressing the misinformation and acting quickly was probably what kept it from spiraling out of control. But it’s created an interesting predicament for the coffee chain.
“What they did however was avoid talking about the issue altogether,” he says adding that this presents a quandary for Dunkin Donuts because now people are wondering what kind of stance the company has on abortion.
“I feel that it would have been appropriate for Dunkin’ Donut to at least address the statement itself in some form,” he adds. “When they said that there is no truth behind Clickhole’s statement, what does that mean? Clearly, the one free abortion is a false statement, but does that also mean that they don’t support right to choice?”