Brands Need to Leverage the Power of Satire. Here’s How They Can Do It Right.
Michael Moore once said, “You can’t debate satire. Either you get it or you don’t.” In the world of content, using sarcasm and satire to build a following can be incredibly effective—as long as your audience gets the joke. Unfortunately, if they don’t, backlash from misunderstood satire can bury your publication. In the end, careful consideration is key.
Why you should use satire and sarcasm
The most common—and safest—approach to satire is moderation. You could throw in a few darts of sarcasm to emphasize a point or put a button on a topic. Guardian writer Dean Burnett often uses this technique, like in this article about Upworthy headlines, in which he jokes that Icelandic vulcanologists are the only people who don’t care about SEO.
On the other hand, it’s also possible to create an entirely sarcastic piece of content that drives traffic and increases entertainment value. Last October, I wrote an article titled “Here’s Why All Freelancers Are Idiots” for Freelance Advisor, and after a viral surge in January, it generated the most social shares of any article published during the site’s four-year tenure. Getting people to enjoy your sense of humor means they’re more likely to remember your brand, pay attention to what you’re saying, and share your articles on social.
And even if you’re writing sarcastically, you still have an opportunity to pass on important information to your readers. In another piece from Burnett, he wrote a sarcastic review of the TV show Wonders of Life by pretending to confuse it with the Jimmy Stewart film It’s a Wonderful Life to point out how readers often jump to the comments sections before finishing an article.
If you can combine prudent jokes and smart analysis, you’ve got a very valuable piece of content on your hands.
What needs to be considered
Clearly sarcasm and satire are double-edged swords, and from a brand’s point of view, that second edge can create a publicity nightmare.
Some recent satire backfired spectacularly and caused a huge fuss for Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report. The show’s Twitter account, not controlled by Colbert, tweeted an out-of-context joke about race from an episode. Suey Park, an activist, took offense to the tweet—without bothering to research the initial context—and spearheaded a #CancelColbert social media movement that gained a lot of traction. Shortly after, The Colbert Report deleted the show’s account and endured a flood of bad press.
Satire has always been a dangerous tool, and for many, that’s the point. Brass Eye, the satirical U.K.-based show created by Chris Morris, caused a huge uproar with its Peadogeddon episode, a 2001 spoof about media hysteria in relation to a kidnapping and murder case. Then again, a huge uproar is exactly what Morris wanted.
For The Colbert Report, the offending joke was actually part of a bit about racial insensitivity, but even though many people understood the point of the humor, all it took was one person to spoil the satire. You could get your entire office to approve a piece of content, but the predictability of satire is never guaranteed. And with the mob mentality of social media, you can find yourself mired in controversy within the hour. It doesn’t really matter if you think the satire is harmless; your audience ultimately dictates how a joke will be received.
It doesn’t really matter if you think the satire is harmless; your audience ultimately dictates how a joke will be received.
Dealing with backlash
Nobody wants to deal with a media firestorm, but if things go wrong, all companies should be prepared to put out the flames.
It’s important to respond quickly. Before the problem starts to spiral, you can stay ahead of the backlash by commenting on the issue if reporters reach out for your side of the story. Obviously, you should be measured in your response.
As you prepare a contingency plan, make sure to address certain questions: Do you accept or refute the criticism? Do you have the time and resources to deal with the backlash?
Admittedly, not all controversies have negative outcomes. You have to evaluate how detrimental each situation can get. Chick-fil-A faced publicity problems in 2012 after the company’s COO made comments against same-sex marriage. That year, the company’s sales increased 12 percent.
Additionally, some backlash may just be negligible. A tongue-in-cheek piece I wrote about the freelancers and the free market economy was attacked by a fellow writer. The critique never took off, proving that if someone doesn’t get a joke, and nobody is there to listen, politically correct protests don’t make a sound.
The critique never took off, proving that if someone doesn’t get a joke, and nobody is there to listen, politically correct protests don’t make a sound.
I still attempted to explain the context to the writer over Twitter, but he never responded.
Regardless of the problem, one rule always applies: don’t hit back with insults and snarky comments. Calling people stupid for not getting the joke will only make things worse. If you’re going to defend yourself, do it calmly and concisely. Engaging in endless arguments on Twitter and Facebook is a great way to boost your career. Just kidding. That was sarcasm.
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