When a family brand gets a NSFW SNL mention

Brands just want to have fun. But if you're a family brand like Sara Lee, can you?

A mention on Saturday Night Live is the stuff of dreams for any social media manager looking for an easy-in on a viral post. But the quick-witted, snarky and sometimes risqué posts that earn Burger King and Wendy’s awards could backfire quickly for iconic family brands that are loved by older consumers. 

So when Sara Lee found itself in an unexpectedly raunchy Saturday Night Live sketch last weekend, its comms team was "thrown for a bit of a loop," the brand told PRWeek, via email. Sara Lee did not know about or participate in the creation of the skit.

In the sketch, host Harry Styles portrays a social media manager who gets a talking to from his bosses after using the brand’s Instagram account, instead of his personal one, to comment "wreck me daddy" and "destroy me king" on a photo of Nick Jonas. The result: Sara Lee’s real-life Instagram account has been receiving similar comments

Instead of deleting the comments, it hid them until the team could read through and figure out what happened. "All comments are now visible and we will be monitoring for any that violate Instagram standards," the company said in a statement. "While the explicit jokes in the skit do not align with Sara Lee Bread’s brand, we know SNL pushes the envelope for laughs and are taking it all in stride."  

Sara Lee also sarcastically replied to an SNL tweet about the skit, saying it was checking its social media manager’s recent activity.

Laura Bedrossian, Hot Paper Lantern’s VP of social strategy, calls Sara Lee’s response succinct and safe. 

"They appeared to want to address the issue of allegedly deleting comments and leave the door open for actually deleting comments if they violate community standards of a specific platform," she notes. 

Skylar Whitney, social media strategist at Dittoe Public Relations, says Sara Lee was wise to temporarily hide, rather than delete, salacious comments referencing the skit. "When you delete comments, an average social media user thinks a brand is trying to hide something," she says. 

Temporarily suspending new comments while the team assessed the situation was the right move, adds Whitney.

"Giving yourself time to react in the best way is the most important thing companies can take away from this, rather than just reacting instantly," she says. "It pays to react fast, but it pays more to react smart. Being able to look at it from all sides and get the best perspective before making a decision is the best option for a company."

When it comes to NSFW humor, family brands should be wary of how they capitalize on a viral moment, notes EP+Co creative director Lance Ford.

"In the brand social space, there is the thought that you could take any brand and make them go viral any day of the week," he says. "Does that mean that the way in which they went viral reflects their brand values? No, it doesn’t."

Sara Lee could have easily made a post that referenced "wreck me daddy" and gone viral. A playful response from Sara Lee could have netted the brand new customers, such as the highly coveted Gen Z audience, says comms consultant Jeremy Pepper.

However, a brand must carefully weigh if this is an opportunity to gain new followers or if it could lose them by engaging with the content. Pepper notes that there is likely little crossover among Sara Lee aficionados and Saturday Night Live and Harry Styles fans. So seeing the lines from the skit littering the comments section of Sara Lee’s Instagram posts could cause confusion or anger directed at the bread brand from loyalists.

"If someone didn’t know about the SNL skit and they went to the Sara Lee Instagram page and saw these things happening, it could make them cringe or wonder why they would want to even purchase Sara Lee products," says Staci Reidinger, Team Rubicon state director of communications for Southern California. "That is the risk they are taking by allowing that content to stay there."

Getting involved in the conversation on social media is outside of Sara Lee’s brand tone and misrepresentative of its brand identity. Bringing further attention to the joke could also start a rumor that a real social media manager at the company made a mistake, Ford warns. And that could even lead a brand like Sara Lee into dicey political waters, even a "war on family values" storyline, adds Pepper. 

"I could easily see this becoming fodder for certain pundits and news networks," he says.

Bedrossian counters that it would have been fun to see Sara Lee jab back playfully, responding while remaining in its brand voice, which is safe for work and family conversation. 

The fact that its team replied to the SNL skit, but didn’t retweet with comment, shows Sara Lee probably wanted to take advantage of the publicity but didn’t take the leap, says Bedrossian.

She suggests Sara Lee could have tweeted something like, "Harry Styles, HR wants to chat with you." Sara Lee could also have pointed to a non-rival brand to try to get interaction with a tweet like, "Sir, this is an @Arbys." Sara Lee could have also amplified, shared or commented on posts by brand advocates coming to its rescue.

"Being parodied on such an iconic show — and not for something that actually happened — is brand gold," says Bedrossian.

Lisa Mann, who runs consultancy Think Marketing, agrees that Sara Lee missed an opportunity. She says the brand could have reacted in a "more human" way, adding it’s OK for a brand to have a sense of humor as long as it remains true to itself. At the very least, Mann advises, the team should have sent cheesecake to the SNL writers’ room.

"It was an opportunity to embrace a cultural moment, thank SNL, thank everyone for their interest and maintain their decorum," she says. "They could have used it also to state what their brand stands for, like making delicious things, or to commend the community team for being so responsible."

The Sara Lee skit is also an important reminder to social media managers to double-check what account they are using before posting.

"Working in social media, I thought SNL’s skit was hilarious, and there are far too many real-life examples of social media managers accidentally posting personal content on brand channels," says Bedrossian.

That’s something that happened to Whitney in 2016, when she mistakenly tweeted from Dittoe’s Twitter account about the importance of saving bees. 

"I realized almost instantly and took it down, but not before a few higher-ups at my company saw it," she says. "They still tease me about it to this day, but that's nothing compared to the SNL skit."

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