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By B.L. Ochman

As the presidential campaign reaches its conclusion, a new breed of viral political protest has been popping up in sarcastic, and often bitingly funny, Amazon product reviews. The fake reviews often number in the hundreds and elicit thousands of comments.

Protests in comments have happened before, of course, but they were attached to products people didn’t like, including a much-maligned BIC Pen and Pepper Spray used against unarmed student protesters. These Amazon protests aren’t about Avery. Their binder descriptions are just the vehicles for election-focused protest reviews.

Is there really no such thing as bad publicity? Could the attention focused on products actually lead to increased sales? Should brands ignore or respond to these protest reviews? It depends.

Following the second presidential debate, in which Mitt Romney said he searched for staff in “binders of women,” Amazon reviews of binders made by Avery, Tops, Filexec, and other binder makers got hundreds of protest reviews, including:

“I was intrigued by Romney’s “Binders full of women” statement so thinking this was some new fashion statement, I ordered one of these to try on. How do multiple women fit into these things when I can barely get one boob in? I must be doing it wrong.”
and
Finally! A plus size binder!!!
It’s black so it also makes me look smaller than I really am. Just put on black heels and you are all set! Thank you for thinking of us plus size women!! …A big 3″ binder like this one can keep up with the big-boned corn-fed Midwesterner women that will vote Republican and smile as their civil rights are stripped away.”

The URL BindersFullofWomen.com was snapped up 90 seconds after Romney’s remark. Tumblr blogs, @BindersofWomen on Twitter, a Facebook page with over 200,000 Likes, and a Facebook group with more than 12,000 members have sprung up in viral protest. Avery got dozens more snide comments about how to fill binders on their Facebook page.

Avery smiled
To their credit, Avery used humor and humility to respond on Facebook, which was exactly the right response. “We’re hearing a lot about binders today!” Avery posted to its Facebook page on Oct. 18, two days after Romney’s “binders full of women” blunder. “It’s terrific to see so much passion this election season. And we’re always excited to hear folks talking about binders.” Their comments got nearly 500 likes and scores of positive comments.

A Hated Product
Earlier this year, BIC for Her Pens was silent when more than 750 people lambasted them in Amazon reviews over their ill-conceived “thin barrel designed to fit a women’s hand”

A Dangerous Product
The first really widespread Amazon political protest-by-review was against Defense Technology Pepper Spray in 2011.

When campus police at UC Davis used Defense Technology’s Pepper Spray at close range against unarmed protesters, consumers immediately took to Amazon’s product review page with more than 350 protest reviews. Each of the fake reviews generated approximately 6,000 votes as “helpful.”

Among those “reviews”:
“And don’t start any of that liberal whining about the Right to Assemble or protest peacefully. No one gave those scrambled eggs the right to assemble on my plate. The Constitution is for sissies, except for the Second Amendment, which should be followed to the letter.”

Amazon knows, doesn’t care
“What’s astonishing, said Technology Review, “is that Amazon seems fully aware of the potential of its reviews to be used for comedy or social commentary. Nothing in their Review Creation Guidelines specifically bans this kind of off-topic reviewing, and if anything they’re probably happy for all the free publicity that occurs anytime anyone decides to use their reviews as a vehicle for self expression.”

In fact, Amazon customer discussion groups inlcude a humor forum where funny reviews are discussed.

The bottom line for brands
While BIC and Defense Technologies’ products were perceived as offensive, Avery’s binders are not. There was little BIC or Defense Technologies could say to defend products the public found patently offensive. But for Avery, whose product is innocuous, keeping their sense of humor was the right response.

The bottom line for brands: one way or another, anyone with a computer can have his/her say on any topic, at any time, in just about any place online.

Every brand that finds itself in an unwelcome spotlight will have to make a decision on how to respond to comment hijacking. Your turn could be next.