How Protein World Turned ‘Negging’ into a Marketing Strategy
‘Negging’, traditionally the domain of insecure men who don’t know how to relate to women but totally rock a fedora, has apparently filtered its way into the advertising strategy toolkit. Oh advertising has always played on our insecurities in order to flog us solutions to problems we didn’t realise we had, but in the past week supplement brand Protein World has taken the strategy to pioneering new heights (or perhaps that should be depths?). Why bother trying to concoct clever mind games when you can just call your detractors ‘fatties’?
For those of you who’ve missed the furore (there must be like four of you out there, right?), it started when disgruntled commuters on London’s tube network took exception to Protein World’s campaign for one of the their weight loss products. It wasn’t the horrendous shade of yellow that ignited their ire (which, for me, was the most offensive element of the original campaign… I mean… yuck), but the provocative slogan ‘Are You Beach Body Ready?’ juxtaposed to a bikini-clad model. The posters were defaced, photoshopped and mocked on social media by people incensed by the campaign’s unspoken implication – that you need to look like a fitness model in order to enjoy some beach time.
Of course, ad campaigns are defaced and slagged off all the time. When I was a young ‘un, I once asked my mum why someone had sprayed ‘fuck off’ onto an Irn-Bru billboard that read ‘I love Irn-Bru and so do my bitches’.
But Protein World has a few steps further, taking to Twitter to brand their detractors ‘fatties’, telling them to #getagrip. They might do well to follow their own advice to #getagrip, though, as an online petition and a few scribbled-on posters has also prompted them to tweet ‘this is not feminism, it is extremism’. (In the words of Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means’.)
Troll Queen Katie Hopkins then joined their cause. After comparing drowned migrants to ‘cockroaches’, the Sun columnist has jumped to Protein World’s defence with some unpleasant tweets about ‘chubsters’. (Apparently, anyone who doesn’t like the ad must be overweight and unfit… Nope, didn’t make any sense to me either).
Some ad industry commentators have commended the ‘integrity’ of Protein World’s response. Sure, you couldn't accuse them of 'blandvertising'. And I guess it is authentic and true to the brand’s values, if these values include ‘being an arsehole’. The company’s CEO has also boasted that the campaign (and subsequent free publicity) has reaped them £1million in sales. From a barebones ROI point of view, they’ve more than made back the £250,000 which is reportedly the media spend on the campaign. But is that enough?
One of the grossest things about the saga (aside from the aforementioned eyedirt yellow – and did I mention they paired it with grey? Bleurgh) is the way the brand has responded to individual tweeters. They rounded on one woman, at first telling her to ‘grow up’ and then creating the hashtag #growupharriet. CEO Arjun Seth speculated, in a now-deleted tweet, about another detractor’s ‘issues’ and mentioning her by name (‘it sounds like Juliette had a lot of issues well before she saw the PW ad’).
…is that… is that cool? Are we OK with brands singling out people who didn’t like their ads? Is cyber-bullying given a free pass as long as it makes lots of money? Being provocative, controversial, even downright obnoxious is a valid, potentially effective strategy. Protein World is certainly following the immortal advice of Sir John Hegary: “When the world zigs, zag.” But picking on individuals who are not public figures, questioning their mental health, crosses the line between ballsy PR and personal vendetta. A zag too far, perhaps.
Anyway, it’s been an instructive few weeks for campaigns that tackle body image - specifically women's body image. Protein World’s approach has been more upfront and honest than the cloying insidiousness of Dove’s ‘Real Beauty'. Dove has been facing an ever-growing backlash that started to rumble about the time of the ‘Sketches’ campaign, continued to grow following the snort-inducing ‘patches’ and has really broken through with the release of their latest ‘Choose Beautiful’ effort. Garnier’s recent ‘Into a woman’s skin’ effort earned it a deliciously scornful editorial on Creative Review ('Garnier to Women: You can have it all just don’t get old'). Nike’s recent ‘Better for it’ campaign (a more saccharine re-imagining of Sport England’s joyous ‘This Girl Can’, with substantially less body diversity than the award-winning British ad) purported to understand women’s insecurities around exercise but in reality it showed a cast of attractive and fit-looking women whose internal dialogue flip-flopped between being nervous of the judgemental people around them and, umm, being totally judgemental.
The whole point of insecurities is that they’re sore points – so they’re always going to be difficult to play with. Protein World has totally given up on the idea of ‘getting it right’ and has wholeheartedly embraced the way of the troll. Prone as I am to some pretty underwhelming flights of fancy, I’ve been imagining what sorts of strategy meetings go on in Protein World’s marketing and PR department. That’s assuming, of course, that they even had a strategy and aren’t just arseholes who struck lucky. They've gained a brief sales blip but I’m going to watch with morbid curiosity (and, probably, head-in-hands exasperation) to see how this, err, ‘strategy’ plays out in the long term. Until then, I'm off to the beach.
*Sorry, rendered temporarily speechless. There are times when only an emoticon will do.