Brands trying to make a buck off of #MeToo

Some brands using #MeToo to market have gone as far as applying for trademarks and issuing press releases, whether their brand is related to sexual harassment or not.

Some companies could pay out millions of dollars to victims of sexual harassment as a result of the #MeToo movement.

But others might actually make a buck off it.

Employment lawyers, insurance companies, motivational speakers, authors — even self-defense instructors — are finding ways to use the anti-harassment social movement to market a product or service. The particularly tone-deaf examples: a makeup company that applied to trademark #MeToo and a California children’s adventure camp that used the movement as a launch point to market itself in a news release.

Branding and marketing experts agree: Companies should tread lightly. Even the most well-meaning brands run the risk of coming across as exploitative when they use sensitive issues for the purpose of marketing, said Cassandra Bailey, the CEO of Philadelphia-based Slice Communications.

“If fighting harassment is not core to the fiber and function of the business,” she said, “you have no place in the public conversation about it.”

Perhaps companies looking to capitalize on cultural moments is just the next phase of #MeToo. Started 10 years ago by former Philadelphian Tarana Burke as a way to empower survivors, the movement gained traction last fall with allegations of sexual assault against film producer Harvey Weinstein. It has since expanded to include “Time’s Up” organizers in Hollywood. (Even former White House strategist Steve Bannon said recently that the “anti-patriarchy movement” is going to “unfold like the tea party, only bigger.”)

Backlash for marketing such a sensitive topic for seemingly unrelated and superficial campaigns has been swift. The makeup company Hard Candy in January ended up withdrawing an application to trademark #MeToo for the purpose of cosmetics just a day after TMZ reported on the application. Even though the company later said it intended to donate the revenue, the branding didn’t go over well with customers.

Federal records show several pending applications to trademark #MeToo, including one by a social-networking firm and another from a Virginia law firm. Last week, the federal Patent and Trademark Office denied a Georgia woman’s application to trademark “metoo” to make bracelets because, among other reasons, the phrase “is a commonly used message that is used to help demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.”

Kate Allison, CEO of the Philadelphia strategic communications firm Karma Agency, said she would never recommend a client wade into a sensitive or controversial issue such as #MeToo unless its product or service is directly related to that issue. She said a company aiming to make money off of something such as #MeToo is “disturbing.”

“It is doubtful these kinds of organizations are really looking at the issues with any true and deep understanding of them and really trying to figure out a way to help solve a problem,” she said, “rather than just capitalizing on a problem.”

Brands that seem as if they’re taking advantage of a painful experience run the risk of facing significant resistance, particularly in the age of social media, which allows for outrage to quickly spread. Last year, Pepsi quickly pulled a commercial featuring model Kendall Jenner offering a Pepsi to a police officer at a protest after the company was widely accused on social media of appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement.

Jeff Jubelirer, vice president of Philadelphia-based Bellevue Communications, said brands must understand that, today, social media “leads” and “everything is instantaneous.” So a lack of authenticity can be “very dangerous” and can lead to quickly spreading outrage, he said.

Jubelirer recommended that if a company believes it offers a product or service that’s reasonably related to a controversial social moment such as this one, its marketers should test the ad or messaging with — at least — a subset of employees. Then, he said, those in decision-making positions should be prepared to listen and ensure that “those decisions aren’t made in a closed boardroom.”

Allison said there were certainly times when brands can appear opportunistic and get away with it. Take the Eagles’ Super Bowl win, for instance. You’d be hard-pressed to find a local company criticized for aiming to make a buck off the Birds. There’s a difference, she said, between being strategic and “unconscionable.”

“Who among us didn’t take the opportunity to get on the bandwagon and find a way to advance our own brand?” she said of the Super Bowl. “But in my mind, there should never be a time when a company capitalizes on an issue as universally negative as sexual harassment.”

Jubelirer had a final tip for brands that still want to plunge into controversial social movements: When it’s something such as #MeToo, a company had better be confident it’s practicing what it’s preaching. That means ensuring the company has a culture that allows for employees to feel comfortable coming forward with complaints about sexual harassment or gender-based inequality.

“If you’re going to wade into something as sensitive as harassment,” he said, “you’d better not have any skeletons in your organizational closet.”