Parody is a new spectator sport and its taking a sledgehammer to brands all over the world. Justine Webse shares some thoughts on how we should respond.
Picture a fully-grown man with a teddy bear, posing like a semi-nude Miranda Kerr. Picture that man tattooed, in thigh-length stockings, with a lot of body hair making odd remarks about his sex life.
Yes, the Bondi Hipsters' parody of that GQ interview was a sight to behold. It was covered by all the major dailies, popular entertainment sites and blogs too (including MamaMia, BandT and Buzzfeed). It was pretty funny and just a little subversive.
But were the Hipsters raining on Kerr's carefully crafted PR exercise? Probably. Should we care why? Definitely.
Viral parodies— that are both ubiquitous and happening in real-time— are gaining a foothold in our new media landscape and they're not going away anytime soon.
All hail the meme
Whether we're talking about the endless stream of memes in social feeds, the fake Twitter accounts, or the more skilfully-crafted TV shows such as John Oliver's 'Last Week Tonight' that end up on YouTube, PR teams are now working in a parody-friendly world.
From where I sit, there are at least two reasons why 'parody' is now an expected and real-time aspect of any major political, corporate or celebrity announcement.
First, producing sharable media is now fast, easy and widely accessible. You make your announcement, and a parody (of various quality) can be out within minutes. If it makes someone laugh, it will be shared.
This easy, topical and shareable content is the mouse to the social media wheel.
Yet, in a world where image is everything and perception is reality, the parody is a pesky, and even destructive, force. You can't welcome people remaking your carefully constructed 'brand', nor relish the army of detractors that seem to sit and wait for you to post something they can ridicule.
The McDonald's Twitter feed is one to watch for this very reason. Within hours of launching their new mascot for healthier eating habits called "Happy", a meme casting it in a darker light was up and fuelling discussion. Clearly, there is context for this negative consumer response in the case of McDonald's, but the speed and style of this response illustrates the point —parody is fast, furious and ubiquitous.
However, there is another reason that parody gains greater traction in our diverse media landscape right now. Parody is here, in increasing volume, because we need it.
Travels in hyper-reality
We need parody to make sense of our hyper-real, over-edited and constructed world. We need it to balance the constant feeling that our lives are being curated, filtered and held up for comment. We need it to feel normal again, to circumvent the PR machine that even encircles our own private lives.
Parody gives us a moment of relief. It gives us the chance to tear open that stubborn, shiny veneer of perfection and lets us see the ugly, difficult shades of grey behind every brand, every image and every individual.
Hindsight is always 20/20
When I looked at the Bondi Hipsters' photoshoot, I was relieved. I was glad someone else saw how ridiculous it is for a grown woman and mother to pose seductively with children's toys— it's creepy. But, it was only possible to talk about this when we could laugh at it. After all, it wasn't the naked Miranda we wanted to parody, but the set-up, the fantasy that begged to be deconstructed and remade from another point-of-view.
Likewise, John Oliver's recent parody of a General Motors ad had a similar effect. It enabled a collective recognition that, in the face of fierce criticism amid product recalls, GM's PR machine had simply gone into overdrive. Yes, they had tried to edit out whole words and phrases from the employee vernacular, it was hardly a good solution to a real issue, but the parody allowed us all to see just how tough it is to stay honest when things are going very, very badly. We panic. We make bad decisions.
The PR discipline has its roots in the previous century, so it remembers a time when things were simpler, when we could craft the truth according to our own view. It reminds us constantly that 'image is everything', your social licence to operate. PR struggles, at times, to make sense of it all.
However, the humble parody is part of the dialogue, and that's why we can't ignore it entirely. It is a response, a necessary hack to our constructed and edited existences. We need to be challenged to see ourselves through other people's eyes, to understand how we affect the world around us, how others experience our product, our service, and our message. That we alone are not the keepers of the brand.
After all, you can never tell the whole truth of the organisation or brand you represent. There will always be a gap between what you want to be and what you really are. And in this space the parody thrives.
Go on, get closer
If we challenge ourselves to get closer to customer and stakeholder experiences, to understand their world and give them an 'in' on the dialogue, the parody will just be one perspective in a great big picture. And it won't matter so much after all.
Before the parody, mistakes will be made. After the parody, mistakes will be made again. And that means we are human. And that means we can always do better.
Justine Webse is a writer, and a marketing and content strategist. She has more than 10 years’ experience as an internal communications consultant and has worked with organisations large and small all over the world. To find more about her and read her blog, visit www.justinewebse.com.