Trafigura, Pepsi and the Mail buckle before the power of the internet

October 19, 2009

Stephen GatelyWhat links Trafigura’s “super-injunction” furore, Pepsi’s “Amp Up Before You Score” fiasco and the row that has erupted over Jan Moir’s alleged homophobia in the Daily Mail? Answer: all three have found they are no match for the internet and social media.

I have no desire to dissect Moir’s insinuation of “unnatural” causes in her article on the death of Boyzone star Stephen Gately. I have no need to. Baroness Peta Buscombe, recently installed as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, will find her emailbag full enough with the outpourings of a campaign spontaneously generated through Twitter and Facebook without me adding anything to her workload. Good luck with that one, Peta.

One predictable turn of events in “Moirgate” has been the slippery attitude of advertisers who, the minute the heat was turned on, asked to be dissociated from the article. Marks & Spencer’s reaction was typical: “Marks & Spencer does not tolerate any form of discrimination,” said a spokesman for the retailer. “We have asked the Daily Mail to move our advertisement away from the article. This is a matter for the Daily Mail.” Er, no it’s not, or not exclusively. If you allow your media buyer to buy into a certain demographic, in this case the meat-and-two-potatoes prejudices of Middle England, you presumably know what to expect, and should not be surprised or manufacture offence when the Daily Beast serves them up with trimmings. As for the Beast itself, it has been bloodied by an unwonted confrontation with populist outrage. About the only thing it hasn’t done, amid all the fawning self-exculpation, is to actually withdraw Moir’s article online, although it has neutered the innuendo-laden headline.

But if the Daily Mail is out of touch with digital culture, its ignorance is not a patch on that of Trafigura, the oil trading company which has been doing its damnedest to mount an out-of-date cover-up of its iniquitous dumping operations off Ivory Coast. That it did not succeed is largely due to the long arm of Carter-Ruck, a bunch of overweening libel lawyers only too well known to journalists, being unable to gag the offshore operations of Yahoo and Google. The Minton exposé, which Trafigura dreaded seeing the light of day, then did exactly that. In the process, what was largely an anonymous, clandestine organisation has acquired an unenviable new brand identity as a tyrannical abuser of press freedom, parliamentary privilege and the 1688 Bill of Rights. Pretty good going for a week’s work.

Pepsi’s offence was less in scale, but greater in culpability. As a global packaged goods corporation it will pride itself on its digital nous. The Amp Up Before You Score Apple iPhone app promised to be cutting-edge stuff, but in the event only seemed to prove that the right arm doesn’t know what the left is doing in the cola giant’s marketing department. The app has caused such a torrent of abuse on the internet, on account of its crass, “neanderthal” attitude to women, that Pepsi has had to issue a grovelling apology on behalf of its previously little-known soft drink brand, Amp Energy. It’s well known now, but for all the wrong reasons. More on what went wrong in my column this week.

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