It's no secret that the pack mentality that often powers social media success can also turn into an angry mob complete with virtual pitchforks at the drop of a hat. That's great when the mob is helping to bring social injustice to light, but it's a nightmare when the mob attacks the victim. Unfortunately, the murky waters of Internet gossip and the fuzzy ethics that seem to rule online behavior can make it difficult to know who the victim actually is. Enter the A&P grocery chain and The Fresh Beets.
The latest viral video to storm YouTube and to garner mainstream news attention is a 4 minute rap video put together by two brothers from New Jersey that calls themselves "The Fresh Beets." The video, called "Produce Paradise" features the two amateur rappers working their way through the produce department of the A&P that employed them, rapping about the fruits and veggies in a less than positive manner. That probably wouldn't have gotten them more than a talking to from a supervisor. Unfortunately, the duo includes shots of themselves licking, kissing and fondling produce. At one point, the pair uses a cluster of fresh beats to smack each other in the genitals and film themselves urinating (or appearing to urinate) on heads of lettuce.
It was the latter actions that caused each to receive a pink slip from A&P and has thrown them into a mess of legal hot water. According to MediaPost Publications, the two were fired with a notice that explained:
Seen in YouTube video making obscene gestures with product sold @ store level. Video is still under investigation.
Haven't seen the video yet? Here it is: (Warning, may not be suitable for children due to language and actions.)
The Fresh Beets claim to have also been served with a lawsuit seeking one million dollars in damages from their former employer. They have taken their case to their YouTube posting in the hopes of rousing up enough public support to get A&P to drop the suit.
Today we were given word that the A&P is suing us for $1,000,000.00. Yes, one million dollars. That's going to be hard for two broke college kids from a family of nine to pay off. Go to fakelaugh.com to support our cause... Fight the power!
This is the music video that has been causing a lot of controversy. Shortly after creating this music video the duo were FIRED from their jobs as produce clerks. The two members of the Fresh Beets are currently in a legal battle with Corporate Headquarters of the grocery store. No joke.
The backlash has been swift with bloggers, YouTube fans and even mainstream media outlets coming down on A&P for what some are calling a heavy-handed response. Comments on the YouTube blog run heavily in support of the rap duo. A&P, on the other hand, claims they had no other choice and that they are taken aback by the anger with which social media mobs are attacking them.
"We are appalled that anyone would glorify the disgusting behavior by our former associates," A&P President and CEO Eric Claus says in a statement. "I find it disturbing that the focus of this story has not been on food safety. The video shows them licking, gesturing, and doing absolutely deplorable things with produce. This is in total contrast to the food safety standards that we uphold as a company. Our actions are reflective of the importance that we place on the integrity of the product we sell to our customers."
Quite honestly, I'm a little astonished at the whole fiasco myself.
While I understand those who claim a lawsuit against the rappers will do little more than increase the publicity around the case, I'm floored at the outpouring of support for the rappers and the anger directed at A&P. Somewhere along the line, the e-generation seems to have forgotten that consequences have actions. Instead, they stand around throwing tantrums about how "the man" is trying to keep them from expressing themselves.
Call me crazy, but in the world I grew up in, video taping yourself destroying company property was a pretty clear cut case for being fired. In addition, releasing a video to the public that causes serious questions about the safety of the produce being sold in a national chain was also a pretty clear cut case for a lawsuit.
Unfortunately, social media storms often lose sight of the fact that our society does life within a set of defined rules and that being able to shout the loudest doesn't mean you get to violate them.
I saw this happen during my own battle with The National Pork Board earlier this year. My original post made it clear that I understood the pork board's need to protect their trademark and that my issue was with HOW they approached the situation rather than that they approached the situation. Nonetheless, as the furor spread, I was amazed at the number of people who were absolutely incensed that the pork board would dare to protect their trademark. It was as if they honestly believed that if they didn't like the company, the laws regarding the issue were moot.
I now see A&P falling into similar hot water. In this case however, they haven't really done anything to deserve the hate-mail. So what's a company to do?
Well, step number one would be to drop the lawsuit. The chances of them recovering even a portion of the $1 million from two broke college students are slim to none. (Though honestly, I would have no problem with them filing appropriate criminal charges for damages to company property.) Their second step should be to hire an online savvy public relations firm to help them come up with a solid strategy for addressing the issue.
The company now needs to address their misguided lawsuit without in any way backing down on their hard-line stance against the misuse of company property and the damages to both their brand and to public safety. (As they have no way of knowing if the tainted produce was sold to customers.)
Beyond that, I think the situation serves as a great example of the dangerous waters companies now find themselves sailing through. Had A&P chosen not to respond to this video, they could have found themselves facing down a very unhappy health inspector with a shut-down order. Should a business be expected to allow loss of revenues and damage to their brand so that two teenage employees can become the flavor of the week on YouTube?
MediaPost writes off the duo's actions:
As gross as the video is, A&P's legal move is an interesting one, given that video pranks are increasingly widespread. Videos of teens doing stupid stuff at Wal-Mart have become so popular that it's practically its own YouTube genre, for example.
I'd respond with one of those time honored quotes from my parents.
"What is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular."
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Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.
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