Published on: February 8, 2012by Kate McMahon
The social networking firestorm that engulfed the estimable Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer charity last week epitomized the power and fury of Facebook, Twitter and message boards across the internet.
The Dallas-based foundation reversed its decision to yank funding for breast cancer screenings provided by Planned Parenthood after a three-day onslaught of online criticism. While the political and fund-raising fallout for Komen remains uncertain, the influence of people airing their views on Facebook and Twitter has hit new heights.
Though not dominating the front pages of mainstream media, another controversy - this one involving a conservative group, a huge national retailer, and social media users - also was lighting up the internet last week.
JC Penney, under new leadership from former Apple retailing chief Ron Johnson, unveiled its new game-changing campaign to cut prices year-round, eliminate most coupons and specials, redesign store layouts and its logo, and introduced a new spokesperson, Ellen DeGeneres.
It appears JCP scored thousands of new customers and online attention not by virtue of its ambitious pricing plan or aggressive TV ad campaign featuring consumers screaming at coupons. But rather because a conservative group, One Million Moms, called on JCP to fire the popular DeGeneres because she is “openly homosexual” and offensive to the store’s “traditional family” customers.
Boy, did that backfire for OMM, an extension of the American Family Association. DeGeneres, one of Hollywood’s best-liked personalities and a popular spokesperson for both American Express and Cover Girl, has 9 million Twitter followers, more than 6.8 million fans on Facebook and three million daily viewers.
Shortly after OMM’s call to arms, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination launched a "Stand Up for Ellen" website; within 17 hours, more than 10,000 people signed an online petition supporting DeGeneres and JC Penney's choice. That number now tops 37,173 names.
But more importantly, the comments on news stories, blogs and Twitter were overwhelmingly pro-Ellen and JC Penney. This entry was typical of the more than 15,000 responses to a Yahoo.com story:
“ I don't shop at JC Penney but I will go out of my way to try and do so now. As a father of two in a "traditional" marriage I would go to bat for Ellen over some ignorant organization shoving their morality down our throats.”
Over at the JC Penney Facebook page wall, one woman wrote:
“I made it a point to shop JC Penney twice this weekend just because they hired Ellen! I plan to go back.”
(Not all the comments on the JCP page were positive, but the most negative ones seemed to rip the TV ads with the primal-screaming consumers.)
Even the wall on the OMM Facebook page has vocal JCP/Ellen backers, including one who penned: “How’s that anti-Ellen thing working for you moms? Not so great, I’m guessing.”
JC Penney on Friday confirmed it “stands behind its partnership with Ellen DeGeneres.” One cynical blogger questioned whether the OMM attack was part of a well-orchestrated JCP publicity stunt to draw attention to its new pricing campaign.
I think not.
Personally, the original Komen decision made me question my long-time support of that organization, and the OMM attack is enough to send me straight to JC Penney for the first time in years.
But I also think this story, along with the Komen uproar and the online campaign by technology companies and citizens that recently grounded two pieces of federal legislation seen as heavy-handed and censorious, prove even to naysayers that attention must be paid to social networking. Public reaction moves at break-neck speed, and companies that do not understand and embrace this new communications force might just as well be selling typewriter ribbons or telecopiers.
One final note. During the initial uproar over her hiring by JCP, Ellen DeGeneres was wise enough to stay out of the war of words and simply let it play out. But now that it has concluded, DeGeneres - who, as it happens, is a former JC Penney sales clerk at its Metairie, Louisiana, store, said she was glad to be back on the payroll and “proud and happy to say that JC Penney stuck by their decision to make me their spokesperson.” And, she added, “Most importantly, I'm gonna get my employee discount again. Hello new pillows!"
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- KC's View: