This post is a part of our People’s Insights monthly brief for October, called “On Responding.”
The two sides of #gamergate
Over the summer, some members of the gaming community rallied together to create the controversial #gamergate movement. The movement has two sides. One is about exposing the corruption within gaming journalism and demanding ethical practices (some journalists are ‘too close’ to game developers, they argue). The other side, which has arguably taken over #gamergate, is seemingly about silencing female critics, developers and gaming press that push for diversification of gaming culture. #Gamergate got coverage in mainstream media following reports of harassment, abuse and hacking directed against female critics, leading to headlines like ‘Massacre’ threat forces Anita Sarkeesian to cancel university talk and Felicia Day’s public details put online after she described Gamergate fears. Controversy grew as members of #gamergate initiated an email campaign (“Operation Disrespectful Nod”) asking advertisers to pull ads from sites that carry these women’s articles and criticism against #gamergate. And – as other gamers and celebrities condemned the movement on social media (Gamergate Is Running Out of Heroes).
Brands targeted by the campaign, including Kraft, Verizon, Best Buy, Adobe, Intel, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, found themselves in a tough spot – should they meet consumer’s demands (as Intel put it) or stay away from the increasingly polarized debate?
AdAge’s Alex Kantrowitz votes for the latter, writing that “those not responding are in better shape than those who have.” But this seems to be a result of these brands pulling ads without commenting on the larger issue. Take the example of Intel. Around October 1, the brand gave in to demands to withdraw advertising from Gamasutra, but didn’t release a statement until October 3, after #gamergate opponents criticized the move. In its statement, Intel clarified that it did not support any side and offered a blanket apology for offending anyone. Adobe’s initial action was just as confusing. The brand asked Gawker (a key target of #gamergate) to remove the Adobe logo from its footer and tweeted “We are not an advertiser w/ Gawker. We asked Gawker to remove our logo. Adobe stands against bullying.”It wasn’t clear which side Adobe was on – was it anti the bullying of gamers, or anti the bullying of the female victims? The brand followed up with a statement a long week later admitting, “It’s hard to tell a story in 140 characters,” “our silence is causing more harm,” and proceeding to share that the brand is “not and have never been aligned with Gamergate” and promoting its recent anti-bullying initiative.
Mercedes-Benz and BMW have allegedly withdrawn advertising on Gawker as well, but have not released statements online. While brands are refraining from picking sides, people targeted by #gamergate are speaking out. For instance, when blogger Andy Baio pointed out that #gamergate proponents count their silence as support, three members of the gaming / comic industry immediately made it clear they did not support the movement.
Reactions: Stay away! Or, take a stand?
AdAge isn’t the only trade publication recommending brands to stay away from what it calls a “lose-lose situation.” PRWeek’s Chris Daniels asked PR professionals what they thought and the answer remained the same: it’s “difficult for stakeholders to have a civil conversation about the issues.” Several communicators also believe the problem will ultimately go away, as Daniels notes:
“Others who talked with PRWeek about the issue suggest GamerGate will have little impact on the video game industry in the long run.”
But given the context of today’s communications landscape where brands like Dove and Virgin have benefited from taking a strong stand, is there an opportunity for brands to get involved? And, what if the movement is here to stay? Rohit Thawani, director of digital and social strategy at TBWAChiatDay seems to think so:
“Advertisers supporting stands are seeing greater returns. The era of running away from issues and problems are over.”
UPDATE: added November 13: At the end of the day, as #gamergate supporters pointed out to us on Twitter, it’s about respecting customers: “Ads just need to stand against bully and lies” tweets @Sen_Armstrong.