When Chex Mix tweeted "Don’t have a bookmark? Try using Chex Mix instead" last week above an image of actual Chex being crumbled between the pages of a book, Random House’s senior social media manager was initially excited. After all, a big part of Sophie Vershbow’s job is to look for conversations in which Random House can authentically insert itself.
"When I first saw Chex Mix’s tweet, I was excited about book-related content from another brand that made sense for us to react to," she says, noting that although the tweet left Random House staffers "confused and vaguely grossed out," they quickly moved on. At the end of the day, dry cereal can easily be swept off a book.
But Vershbow was shocked when she noticed brands such as Vitaminwater, Steak-umm and Gushers creating similar but sloppier content. And she could not believe her eyes when she saw Oreo’s picture of cookies and milk dumped on a book.
Oreo's "soggy pages tweet" prompted a lot of groans and "wild hand gestures" at the desks of Random House, Vershbow recalls.
"This was a brand completely unrelated to books, destroying one in the name of content," she says. "Now that the meme was gaining traction, it felt important to express how displeased bookworms felt watching a book get destroyed in the name of social media engagement.
On September 13, Random House took a stand, retweeting Oreo’s take on the meme and demanding, "This is the worst social media challenge in history and we demand you all stop at once."
Vershbow wrote and posted the tweet without having to run it by anyone for approval. Random House does not work with a PR firm.
"Our accounts are often lighthearted and funny, but at the heart of them is a deep respect for books and authors that overrides all else," she says. "I’m aware that Oreo used a fake book in their post, but that’s not the point. It’s not about what book you’re destroying, or whether the book actually got hurt–– destroying books is never a good look."
Book-lovers praised Random House’s tweet. While tweets from brands that took part in the meme got a lot of engagement on social, they also received their fair share of backlash from people who were not happy about perfectly good books going to waste.
Hey @Oreo, @ChexMix, @vitaminwater, instead of practically destroying books for social media likes, maybe donate some books to some classrooms in need instead? @DonorsChoose has PLENTY of classes who need books. Just saying. pic.twitter.com/dn0jzI7Uk2— Angie Thomas (@angiecthomas) September 13, 2019
Representatives from Vitaminwater, Steak-umm, Gushers, Oreo and Pluckers Wing Bar were not available for comment. A representative from parent company General Mills told PRWeek, "Our followers are snack enthusiasts, so we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We aim to keep things fun and light-hearted at Chex, and we can assure you no books were harmed in the making of the photo."
Oreo also playfully tweeted, "No books were harmed during this dunking."
However, Vershbow is taking the meme seriously, warning social media managers to consider the repercussions of their content before posting it.
"Do you really want to spend your workday explaining to thousands of annoyed followers that no books were harmed while creating content that appears to destroy books?" she says. "It’s worth remembering that we’re being paid to draw positive attention to our brands, and pouring milk all over a book isn’t going to accomplish that."
Was "Don’t have a bookmark?" really the "worst social media challenge in history"? Sarah Schauer, a former "crass" Vine star who most recently was a copywriter for marketing firm EP+Co, doesn’t think so.
"I think it was OK for brands to post this," says Schauer, who exited EP+Co last week. "People are going to be upset with literally everything, but as long as you make sure you don’t hurt or offend anyone, I don’t see why not."
Lane Rawlings, Vita Coco’s community coordinator, agrees. Rawlings is no stranger to controversial tweets, as the person behind the coconut water brand’s pee jar stunt from May.
"It sounds like they weren’t taking themselves too seriously, and to be honest, everyone should take a page out of that book, especially with brand Twitter," says Rawlings. "It should be fun, light-hearted, and entertaining, and sometimes that means pushing the envelope if it feels right."
Schauer says she doesn’t understand how the bookmark challenge can be offensive, saying it’s a matter of "privileged offense" by those who were irked.
"I know there is the whole book-burning comparison, but that is a problem when it comes to stifling someone’s access to education or literature," she says. "This is just someone taking their own property and damaging it."
With any branded content, there is always the potential to offend, notes Amit Wadehra, SVP of digital strategy at Ketchum. As long as a tweet is consistent with a brand voice, true to its ethos and the social media team is exercising its best judgment, then the negative responses are "just noise," Rawlings adds.
"Create a set of valuation criteria for these types of opportunistic challenges," says Wadehra. "Does the opportunity we wanted to capitalize on tie back to an existing campaign or overarching message for the brand? Does it feel authentic to what we would do? Does our target or customers resonate with that activation?"
Other experts are taking a middle road on the meme. On one hand, Laura Bedrossian, VP of social strategy at Hot Paper Lantern, says that as a "huge book nerd," she was personally offended by the meme, but the viral trend missed the mark on some current issues.
"We are in a time where libraries are losing funding and education needs to be at the forefront," she says. "These were wastes of books that could have been donated. There’s also the whole [issue of] reducing waste. Even just the lightheartedness of wasting a material item like that I could see as offending some people as well."
Still Bedrossian gets why brands jumped on the meme. She just thinks their tweets weren’t well-thought-out.
"A stronger use of social should have been brands saying, ‘Here are things you should not use ever as a bookmark,’" she says.