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When a Meme Becomes a Social Movement — Chaos Theory and the Al Franken Resignation

16 Jan

Blog post graphics.002      

    In Shakespearian tragedies, kings and lovers alike are brought down with daggers and potions.  In today’s tragedies, they are brought down with tweets and hashtags.

   The remarkable and sudden fall of US Senator Al Franken is a unique case study in chaos theory, contagion, and the resulting social movements that create new order.  It is not just the story of David throwing a single tweet at Goliath—it’s also the story of ten thousand re-tweets, each with the weight of a stone.  The social narrative gives cover for suppressed victims to thrown their own stones.  Despite all efforts at containment and crisis management, the outcomes are as unpredictable as a creative Saturday Night Live sketch that bombs, or a brilliant legislative package that can’t gather enough votes.  In Franken’s case the unpredictable became inevitable.  It forced Franken to resign from the US Senate.  Goliath fell.

   By itself, the tweet seen around the world from Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden of Al Franken appearing to grope her chest during a 2006 USO tour was a powerful image.  Even though the picture was taken before Franken became a US Senator, it creates a strong cognitive intrusion into the known and expected behavior of a person of power.   But the visual dissonance of the image carried even more weight against the backdrop of social chaos already underway with the sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

   When actress Ashley Judd accused Weinstein of harassment in a October 5th “New York Times” investigation it created its own cognitive intrusion into the reputation of one of Hollywood’s most successful film makers.  The Times investigation uncovered eight settlements paid out to women for their silence on Weinstein’s alleged predatory behavior.   The story was David’s stone cast into a pool of water.  The ripples are the basis for what social scientists call the modern embodiment of chaos theory.

   Chaos theory has its roots in mathematics and physics where researchers such as Edward Lorenz found that even minor variances in complex computational models led to unexpected and contradictory equations.  Lorenz called it the butterfly effect, where the flap of a butterfly’s wings could ultimately affect weather patterns weeks later.   Increasingly applied to social science, chaos theory holds that small events cause ripples that eventually amplify into meaningful movements.  University of Amsterdam researcher Jaap van Genneken notes that within a collective adaptive system such as public opinion, those small events or voices can multiply through media channels to become a powerful and shifting force.

   That’s exactly what Ashley Judd started.  Within seven days, former actress Rose McGowan also publicly disclosed Weinstein had assaulted her and reached a settlement in 1997.  Two days after McGowan, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged victims of sexual harassment to tweet #MeToo.  By the next morning 30,000 people did.  The hashtag shot like its own stone into the public consciousness.  The voices of three women suddenly identified an issue that had been covered up for too long.

   In an age where we communicate at the speed of light, more women saw the light.  Chaos became a contagion.  But it was more than Weinstein.  Accusers came forward targeting politicians, actors, ceo’s, musical directors, even Today Show host Matt Lauer.  Perhaps the most famous target, Alabama US Senate candidate Ray Moore, was accused of sexually targeting teenagers when he was in his 30’s.  

Senator Tweets

Figure 1 – December 6th tweets of women U.S. Senators calling on Sen. Al Franken to resign

   This was the chaos and contagion that encircled Al Franken like a swarm of Davids.  By the morning of December 6th, a seventh woman accused Franken of attempting to kiss her.   That same morning TIME named the “Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year.  In its cover story TIME wrote, “When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who’s been quietly enduring for years.”   Within hours, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand called for Franken’s resignation—seven more women senators joined her in short order. (Figure 1)  Those were David’s final stones.  The next day, Franken announced his resignation on the floor of the US Senate.

 

 

Contageon Timeline

Figure 2

  Although Franken’s communications team tried to counter the attack by producing testimonials from former women staffers on his thoughtful and supportive treatment of them and his championing of women’s issues, it couldn’t compete in a climate of #MeToo contagion. (Figure 2)  Google Trends data clearly shows a timeline of the chaos and the shifting social attitudes.  A TIME/Survey Monkey poll conducted between November 28th and 30th showed 82% of respondents were more likely to speak out about sexual harassment since the Weinstein allegations.  Furthermore, 85% said they believed the women making the allegations of harassment.  

Linear vs Networked Models

Figure 3

   But the phenomenon also speaks to the changing nature of influencers in an environment of fragmented media.  It demonstrates how the old rules of linear communications models with thought leaders at the center have given way to randomized networked systems of influencers. (Figure 3)  Columbia University sociology researcher Duncan Watts has established a model where movements are not necessarily driven by a single person or media channel, but instead by cascades of easily influenced people.  Those cascades turn global—or large—when a critical mass of early adopters connect with each other in the influence network.  Although Watts argues the critical mass may only occupy a small fraction of the population, the cascade effect becomes global when the remainder of the population activates as well.

   This is essentially what happened on the morning of December 6th, when the seventh accuser stepped forward against Franken.  She may have been a small influencer, but timed with the release of TIME’s “Silence Breakers” it built the critical mass that gave cover for the coordinated call among women senators for Franken to resign.  Accelerated by social and digital media, the cascade became unstoppable.

   One of the principals of chaos theory is the self-organization that occurs after the chaotic state or crisis.  In other words, there’s a return to a new order.  In the case of the chaos brought on by the Weinstein accusations there is an emerging re-organization on several fronts.  First, in Hollywood, the creative community has formed the “Times Up” movement creating new awareness and expectations for worker treatment in the entertainment industry.  Second, industrial giants such as Ford have already reexamined HR policies including harassment training at its manufacturing plants—especially in Chicago where complaints surfaced.  As for Al Franken’s senate seat, there is also new order.  A woman—former Minnesota Lt. Governor Tina Smith has replaced him in an orderly transition.

   Like the butterfly’s wings, a single voice can still create the stone in David’s hand, or the dagger in Shakespeare’s play.  And in today’s world of digital communication the contagion they can  are exponentially powerful at creating disorder and reorder.

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How Social Media Reacted to The #Orlando Shootings

12 Jun

IMG_4105     When the world suffers a tragedy we increasingly learn, react and participate all from the palm of our hands.

     It wasn’t more than three generations ago when Americans learned of a different deadly attack on American soil.   That day of “infamy” taught Americans to gather at their radio sets to listen for news. 

     President Roosevelt had a live microphone.  On this day President Obama had Facebook Live.

 

     The news, the updates, the reaction all comes to our mobile devices—in real time.   And people wasted no time in sharing. 

     Among them was presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump who used the tragedy to double down on banning Muslim immigrants.

     The tragedy has become an equal opportunity political opportunity.  If Trump doubled down on immigration, Hillary Clinton doubled down on gun control.

   If Americans on social media were looking for an appropriate political tone, it came from across the ocean.

     The beauty about this modern means of mass communication is everyone gets a chance to participate. Social media has become our communal campfire when tragedy such as Orlando strikes. Which is partially why we are glued to our phones waiting for the surprise of people we know, follow, or respect to chime into the discussion.

     One such person was Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”  On the very day he should have been preoccupied with winning a Tony Award, there he was on my Twitter feed.

     Miranda’s tweet is symbolic of how we’ve come to grieve, honor and demand action from such times of tragedy. We do it visually through memes.   The images say metaphorically more about our emotions than 140 characters ever could.  We saw it recently in the death of Prince and with the shooting massacre in Paris.  In fact, the City of Paris led the way with one of the day’s more powerful posts.

   Brands walk a fine line when trying to acknowledge and participate with their followers in tragedies such as this.  As we saw in Prince’s death, many brands simply got it wrong when they tried to make a statement about themselves.  Many more today got it right, among them, GAP, Esquire, and Hope For Humanity.

Our thoughts are with those affected by the tragedy in Orlando.

A post shared by Gap (@gap) on

 

📷: Alex Wong/Getty

A post shared by Esquire (@esquire) on

 

 

   We’ve increasing become a society connected by our devices getting ever so closer to the global village that communications scholar Marshal McLuhan once foreshadowed.   The tragedy in Orlando proves how we now we react together and grieve together.  But will it be a strong enough event to make us come together?

 

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Purple Reigns — How Social Media Honored Prince

22 Apr

Prince Graphic

                  If you want to know the power of a brand, just watch how other brands try to emulate it.  That’s exactly what’s happened in the tragic passing of music icon Prince.

                 In the moments after the news of his death spread on social media, social media itself became the channel by which brands tried to create their own memes in tribute.  Some in self promotion.  Therein lies extreme risk.

                  With a few exceptions, most brands weren’t just thoroughly thoughtful, they were creatively evocative, and dare I say it—shareable.  After all, that should be one of the top goals.

                 Among the most shared was a simple tweet from Chevrolet.   It’s classic Corvette forever drives one of Prince’s most classic songs.  The six words of copy were as powerful as high-octane fuel.

 

                  Perhaps no one did it better than a government agency—NASA.  The very folks whose job it is to shoot for the stars paid tribune to one of pop-culture’s brightest stars in a way that only they could do.  Their post on Twitter was metaphorical brilliance.

  

                The creative minds at advertising agencies are pre-programmed to make the metaphoric connection between values, emotion, and motivation.   The team at Minneapolis’ Carmichael Lynch not only made that emotional connection, they have a physical connection.  Their offices are across the street from the First Avenue night club where Prince filmed “Purple Rain.”   On a rainy day in Minneapolis, their post proved the power of minimalist design to speak volumes.

Farewell dear #prince

A post shared by Carmichael Lynch (@carmichael_lynch) on

    

              Simplicity also defined the post from Caribou Coffee.  The homegrown Minnesota company didn’t waste words or images.  The message was unmistakable.

#RestInPurple #MNLove #Prince

A post shared by Caribou Coffee (@cariboucoffee) on

  

                In contrast, brands risk scrutiny and backlash when they try to participate in social events by making the conversation—even subtlely—about themselves.   Minnesota brand 3M took that leap.  Its post with a redesigned purple logo and a tear drop in the center was creatively clever, but makes the viewer question what their true motivation was.

A post shared by 3M (@3m) on

 

                 The Minnesota Vikings football team went there as well.  In its attempt to jump on the Prince bandwagon, they too made the conversation about themselves.  How much more powerful and meaningful would have their post been if their social media team had simply dropped the Vikings logo?

Purple Rain. #RIPPrince

A post shared by Minnesota Vikings (@vikings) on

   

               In contrast, the Minnesota Twins took a different approach.  The team’s veterans each year try to connect the rookies to the club and the community by making them sing Prince songs.   Their montage of outtakes wasn’t just a tribute to Prince but an invitation to viewers to enjoy the best of Prince and the memories he’s created for them, too.

   

               It only takes one summer of living in Minnesota to understand the most powerful cultural institution in the state is the Minnesota State Fair.  It is the single camp fire by which people from every corner of the state gather to celebrate summer, music, food, and each other’s company.  The State Fair’s post reinforced how culture honors culture.

💜 #Prince

A post shared by Minnesota State Fair (@mnstatefair) on

 

                  Star Tribune photographer Jeff Wheeler has become a brand in his own right. The images he shoots for Minnesota’s largest newspaper are often filled with metaphorical emotion that ooze from the frame.   His image of Prince’s star at the First Avenue night club needs no caption.

  

                Finally, MTV proves how sometimes it’s best to simply make the message about the subject.  In this case, Prince’s own words.

 

                 The power of social media is how it can stimulate conversation, emotion, and reflection.  The artist we knew as Prince certainly accomplished that with his music.  The fact that millions of fans world wide shared their grief and reflections speaks volumes not just of Prince’s own brand but how he became a part, ever so small, in the story of our own lives.

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GOP Presidential Buzz — Who’s Got it, Who Doesn’t

10 Aug

GOP Debates 1  8-15

      It was reality TV at its best.  There was shouting, insults, bombastic rhetoric, and… Rosie O’Donnell.   Welcome to the first 2016 GOP presidential debates.  As one political scientist noted, it was Jerry Springer without Jerry.  No, this is not your father’s Republican Party anymore.  But television viewers ate it up.   They didn’t just watch, they tweeted, liked, searched, posted, and searched some more.

     This modern day media consumption phenomena creates real-time winners and losers.  Marketers call it “buzz.”  Google calls it “search.”  Whatever you call it, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina owned it during the debates and it will likely deliver a short term boost to their campaigns. 

Figure 1

Figure 1

     The data from Google Trends shows that during the prime time debates, Donald Trump dominated web searches of people looking for more information on him and his presidential campaign. (Figure 1)  It doesn’t hurt that Trump has transformed himself into what political scientist David Schultz would call a politainer.  None of his nine competitors on the stage came close to the internet interaction he drove throughout the evening debates. 

     During the early undercard event called the “happy hour” debates, former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina also dominated internet buzz. (Figure 2)  Arguably, she commanded the attention in a more credible way.  Fiorina’s presence and responses were articulate, commanding, and authoritative.  She wasn’t just a candidate, she was a one-person c-suite—who just happens to be a woman.  She clearly connected with the audience in ways her early evening cohort did not.   GOP Debates 3  8-15

     What both Trump and Fiorina accomplished is part of the modern day political calculus.  In reality, it’s not much different from consumer product campaigns.  Buzz is one of the seven essential marketing drivers that brands from Proctor & Gamble to Beyonce use to grow their business.  

     Four years ago, I conducted a similar analysis of how buzz predicted the top finishers in the Iowa Caucuses where Rick Santorum won by a handful of votes.  The key is to stay consistent in the messaging and deliver enough strategic product news (campaign stances/messaging) to lead the followers on a journey toward activation—that is, contributing money and voting.   Santorum wasn’t able to sustain that early momentum and later dropped out of the race.  The jury is still out on whether Trump can also sustain the momentum, especially given his public statements about women and his not-so-wise fight with Fox’s Megyn Kelly.

     Social media is also part of the new calculus and contributes significantly to buzz and search.  On Twitter alone, interactions with the GOP debate topped major sporting events.

     It’s also no coincidence that Facebook co-sponsored the GOP debates with Fox News.  Facebook reports that 7.5 million people had more than 20 million interactions on the broadcast—that includes posts, likes and shares.   This is the new modern-day political engagement.   The candidates answered questions from Facebook during the debates through the channel’s own engagement campaign that drew 5 million views and 40,000 responses.   On the day of the event, Trump’s staff used the new “live” on Facebook feature to stream his arrival in Cleveland.   As of this writing it has earned more than two million views and 10,000 shares.

 

     Welcome to the 2016 presidential campaign.  As the first GOP debates showed, it will be a different kind of series of events with online engagement becoming increasing important drivers for securing funds and votes.

Celebrating SCOTUS Gay Marriage Ruling – Brands That Got it Right and Wrong

30 Jun

 SCOTUS Tweets Blog Pix        Perhaps the only thing that has shifted faster than public opinion on same-sex marriage is the number of brands that have embraced it.

         When the Supreme Court released its landmark decision, many of America’s leading brands were ready.  They instantly posted visual content on social media with the sole intention having people share it—and boost brand awareness. 

Picture 1 - Orbitz Super Bowl XLVII tweet

Picture 1 – Orbitz Super Bowl XLVII tweet

         Ever since Oreo’s pulled off the social media hit of the new millennia with its “dunk in the dark” tweet during the Super Bowl XLVII power blackout, brands have been keen to never again get left in the dark themselves. (Picture 1)

         But jumping on the social media bandwagon creates some inherent risks—especially with such a polarizing issue.  The Supreme Court may have eliminated the legal roadblocks to same-sex marriage, but social acceptance will still be fought in many corners of the country, even many curb cuts of the neighborhood.   Brands face risks on two fronts.  First, they don’t want to come off as opportunists simply trying to sell a product.  Second, they don’t want to alienate a segmented customer base that may be opposed to same-sex marriage.

       Some of the brands that took to Twitter immediately after the SCOTUS decision were very strategic and measured.  Among those that got it right was Delta Airlines.  Where many brands seemed to make their congratulatory messages about themselves, Delta wanted to say something about their employees.  Classy. 

        The branding archetype that is Coca-Cola spoke volumes without saying anything at all.  It didn’t have to.  More than any other global brand, Coke has stood for diversity since it taught the world to sing more than 40 years ago.  Its minimalist tweet represented everything we’ve come to expect and respect about Coke.

         Strong brands have the leverage to make bold statements.  General Mills’ Cheerio’s brand made such a statement more than a year ago when it introduced to America “Gracie” and her mixed race family.  Diversity has become part of the Cheerio’s brand ethos, which is why it was only fitting for it to have something to say about marriage too.

         Maytag may have been the most metaphorically clever.  The two Maytag repairmen are not only “perfect together,” they’re also a subtle reminder that their washers and driers also complete each other. 

         Target is another leading brand that thinks long and hard about messaging.  In this case they built an interactive GIF to say something about marriage and Target.

         Orbitz took a strategically different approach aimed at community building.  Their social media campaign may seem self-serving, but it’s actually an inclusive message promoting interactivity with the brand and offering  a valuable reward—a free vacation.   

          But there were also swings and misses.  Among them, Procter & Gamble.  Its attempt at supporting the Supreme Court ruling was really all about selling soap and toilet paper.

          Likewise with Jet Blue.   Its message seemed to be an afterthought complete with a stock picture. 

          Kellogg’s should get credit for being ready when the Supreme Court decision came down, but their message clearly seemed equally as focused on selling Corn Flakes.

          Social media is always risky especially on polarizing issues.  But as these brands show, there’s a fine line between striking a chord and being tone deaf.

The Coat Hanger TV Blooper — The Making of a Viral Video

6 Apr

     It was just a stupid clothes hanger.  That was pulled from a stupid suit.  That became a stupid video.  That has now been viewed more than two million times.      

     Admittedly, in my role as a TV news guy I’ve shared with our viewers dozens if not hundreds of viral videos.   I never expected to be part of one.   

Picture 1 - Fox 9 Meteorologist Steve Frazier's hanger

Picture 1 – Fox 9 Meteorologist Steve Frazier’s hanger

      The on-air mishap of my colleague Steve Frazier pulling a wire hanger out of his suit I can assure you was no stunt.  If Steve was guilty of anything, it was rushing to simply make his camera shot.  But within hours, Steve was getting calls from Italy and our assignment desk was fielding inquiries from the UK’s “Guardian” newspaper.   Then there was NBC’s “Today” show, “Ellen,” “Time,” “The Huffington Post” and “The Weather Channel.”      

     The coat hanger gaffe became such a cultural phenomenon that it even became a question on the NPR news quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”   I happen to know this because I was on vacation and in the audience with my family at the Chase Auditorium in Chicago.   When the question was read to P.J. O’Roarke, my teenaged daughters cheered—I just wanted to disappear into the seat.   Then, when I approached scorekeeper Bill Kurtis and host Mike Pesca after the show, Pesca laughed and said, “You work with Steve Frazier!”  (Picture 2) 

Picture 2 -

Picture 2 – “Wait, Wait” score keeper Bill Kurtis writing a fan letter to Steve Frazier

      What I now call “hanger gaffe” is not only a statement on 21st century media culture, it’s also a useful case study on what makes videos go viral.   Advertising and consumer behavior researcher John Eighmey offers an outstanding index of factors that affect the propensity to share content.   Videos though, are unique.   With that in mind I’ve constructed my own viral video model that contains five essential factors.  (Figure 1)

Figure 1

Figure 1

      Accessibility:  This is basic and essential.  The video needs to exist on an accessible and sharable channel such as YouTube and increasingly Facebook.      

      Familiarity:  The scenario must be recognizable.   In this case, a television newscast where the audience has already formed its own set of expectations about what happens in a news program.      

      Authenticity:  Is it real, genuine, and not staged?      

      Surprise:  A sudden event or occurrence that deviates from normal expectations.  In this case Steve pulling the hanger from his jacket.      

      Enjoyment:  An emotional response.  Entertainment or outrage.      

     The model essentially needs all of these elements to come together for a video to go viral.   But the model also closely follows the long established Appraisal Theory of consumer behavior. (Figure 2)  In this case the viewer makes a cognitive assessment of video which leads to an emotional response.  The response forms attitudes on actions including whether to “like” the video or share it among friends.  Likewise, the emotional response can also lead to outage depending upon the content of the video—such as a violent police arrest. 

Figure 2

Figure 2

      To be honest there are several contributing factors as to why Steve’s mishap became a temporary world-wide sensation.    Among them is the fact that everyone loves TV news bloopers.  There’s a reason why they’re a staple on late night comedy shows from David Letterman to Jimmy Fallon—viewers love to see presumably credible people make mistakes.   In this case it was a big part of the enjoyment factor.     

      As for the viral video model, Steve’s “hanger gaffe” fits it like a good hanger.   We’ve certainly had our fun.   And now… on with the news.

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