Hatejacking: When bad people target and exploit good brands

When extremist groups target, exploit, and tarnish your brand, it's known as hatejacking, which can lead to serious reputational and sales repercussions.

October 14, 2020 · READ

Think about who poses a credible threat to your brand. Did you include web-savvy bigots, soft-brained conspiracists, and grifters or opportunists affiliated with the alt-right?

That’s how author Andrew Marantz characterizes the extremists on social media who have targeted, exploited, and tarnished more than a dozen brands, products, and celebrities in recent years—an unfortunate trend known as “hatejacking” that can lead to serious, negative repercussions.

In his book, “Antisocial,” which explores an extremist’s use of social media, Marantz says the instigators he interviewed over three-and-a-half years are compulsively reactionary and get a thrill from tearing things down. “As for what kind of society might emerge from the ashes,” he writes, “they had no coherent vision, and showed little interest in developing one.”

White supremacists, white nationalists, and other fringe groups hatejack brands—foods and beverages, sports teams, celebrities, fashion—to humanize and normalize their extreme ideas. In a blog post on Daily Stormer, marchers were instructed to dress respectably, noting that appearance was more important than ideas in getting people engaged and involved.

The intention of these instructions is to disrupt the stereotypes people hold of extremists by pivoting away from the intimidation and polarization of the hooded uniforms of the Ku Klux Klan or the shaved heads, bomber jackets, and combat boots of neo-Nazis and “white power” skinheads.

This effort by extremists to mainstream their movement is purposely calculated to appeal to a younger generation open to the far right, but hyper-aware of their own appearance and persona. Hatejacking popular brands helps soften the extremist message to these potential recruits at the same time it rejects the stigma of the conspicuous image and behavior of a racist skinhead.

At the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, there were some KKK members in hoods, but a majority of the demonstrators wore polo shirts and khakis. “That was very deliberate, very much a call-to-action to look normal, to look kind of respectable,” said Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist from American University. “There is an effort to mainstream the aesthetics of extremists and to make it more appealing and more palatable to consumers.”

Using the reach and speed of social media, instigators can quickly galvanize a base of supporters and recruit new followers with a behind-the-scenes call to align with a popular, if improbable, brand.

That’s why you can never look at a TIKI® Torch in quite the same way. An unfortunate outcome for Wisconsin-based Lamplight Farms, owners of the TIKI Brand, who watched as hundreds of white nationalist protesters descended on Charlottesville carrying its distinctive bamboo torches.

Although the hatejacked brand was quick to denounce the group’s use of its products, the stigma of that movement follows the brand to this day.

No brand is safe from bad intentions

The book “Antisocial” describes a social media natural selection where the posts that get the most interactions and engagement get rewarded with paid media support, regardless of the virtue (or lack thereof) of the content. As Marantz put it in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, “The way we’ve built our information ecosystem is such that if you’re good at it and you’re motivated enough and you’re not ashamed of transgressing all kinds of various norms of human behavior, you can kind of just do whenever you want.”

The ability of instigators to instantly create the illusion of association with a brand makes hatejacking problematic and unpredictable for any enterprise.

A company like Lamplight Farms can be an unwitting victim whose brand is randomly appropriated by a hate group. A brand can be accidentally swept into a politically charged moment because of an unintended action. Or a brand can inadvertently capture the admiration of hate groups with narrow-minded public statements that are quickly exploited by instigators.

Here are some examples of recently co-opted brands in each of those situations:

Detroit Red Wings. The NHL team had its logo hatejacked and modified with Nazi imagery into a banner of white nationalism, linked to a group called the Detroit Right Wings. Protestors marching in Charlotte wore pins with the logo or emblazoned it on homemade shields. The team and the NHL released statements of outrage and threatened legal action.

Fred Perry polo shirts. The black polo shirts trimmed in yellow stripes have been adopted as the unofficial uniform of neo-Nazis and the self-described “western chauvinist” Proud Boys. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists Fred Perry as the polo shirt brand favored by skinheads. The company has repeatedly distanced itself from hate groups, describing them as “counter to our beliefs and the people we work with,” and recently has halted all sales of the shirt.

Lonsdale. The clothing company is the victim of a far-fetched, far-right appropriation based on its name, which includes the letters N-S-D-A. That’s close enough for conspiracists to link it to the NSDAP, an acronym for the Nazi Party. Because the brand was co-opted, the company has refused to deliver clothing to shops identified as selling far-right merchandise, and it launched a pro-tolerance campaign, “Lonsdale loves all colors.

New Balance. When an executive of the Boston shoe company publicly commended President Trump’s stance on trade, extremists declared New Balance “the official shoes of white people.” Social media was soon flooded with people either trashing or embracing their New Balance shoes, depending upon their political leanings. New Balance was forced to issue a second statement that said it “does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form.”

Papa John’s. During an earnings call, former chief executive John Schnatter blamed falling sales on how the NFL had handled players’ protests against racism and police brutality. Far-right extremists celebrated the divisive language and, once again, extremists jumped on the comment and declared Papa John’s the “Official Pizza of the Aryan Master Race.” The company rejected the endorsement saying, “We condemn racism in all forms and any and all hate groups that support it. We do not want these individuals or groups to buy our pizza.” 

Wendy’s. Other brands have stumbled into extremist fandom after careless cultural missteps. After Wendy’s official Twitter account mistakenly tweeted a picture of Pepe the Frog, a white nationalist symbol, with red hair and pigtails resembling the company’s mascot, the ever-vigilant extremist groups proclaimed Wendy’s the “official burger of the Neo-Nazi Alt-Right movement.” Wendy’s explained, “Our community manager was unaware of the recent evolution of the Pepe meme’s meaning and this tweet was promptly deleted.”

Give your brand an advantage over hatejacking

For socially maladjusted instigators, hatejacking brands is an easy way to get the attention they crave and clear a path to perceived legitimacy. The chairman of the far-right Traditionalist Workers Party, said that’s not going to change anytime soon, telling The Washington Post, “We have to prove that we are a reliable economic, social, and political bloc within American politics.”

Today you can protect your brand from unwanted associations and harmful content that can damage reputation, reduce revenue, or affect operations with sophisticated, proactive early-warning risk intelligence that keeps you one step ahead of instigators.

It doesn’t matter if your brand is an innocent victim, an unintentional ally, or an accidental advocate, you can be alerted to emerging threats from hate groups. When you can catch influencers in the moment that they start to rally followers to move against your brand, you can detect and respond to issues in real-time—before your product or service becomes entangled.

Effectively monitoring for all potential incidents goes beyond content to the bad actors behind it and their affiliated groups, so you can anticipate coordinated efforts that have the potential to blow up into a full-fledged hatejacking of your brand.

Hatejacking can be irrational and even absurd, but it has consequences for the brands it affects. Beyond reputational damage, it takes time and money to regain control of the conversation and reassure customers—resources that could be dedicated to building your brand reputation and your business.

You should take action now, before your products or services makes the list of brands preferred by web-savvy bigots, soft-brained conspiracists, and grifters or opportunists affiliated with the alt-right.

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