Ashley Judd, Digital Haters and Missing Marketers

As the University of Kentucky nears basketball perfection, its most visible fan is just starting her campaign for increased civility and accountability in a digital world. When Twitter Trolls full of keyboard courage and protected by pseudonyms sent threatening messages, Ashley Judd promised legal action. She is the latest public figure to take a stand against the increasingly aggressive haters in the social-web. Curt Schilling took a different tack using his reach and resources to unmask haters. Similar to crowdsourcing that divines the right answer, the offenders were held quickly accountable. ESPN has developed a quick trigger when it comes to defending its on-air talent. Can it be improved? Certainly. For the moment, the comments fill a void left by other's silence. Whether ESPN's statements, Judd's legal path or Schilling's public flogging are the most effective tactics is mostly an irrelevant question. All should be applauded for a vocal and visible response.

An accelerating digital world offers near frictionless communication. It removes filters which served as behavior guardrails. Celebrities and media companies thrive on this instant access even when response turns sour. It is a game to a point. Marketers also trumpet desires to "start a conversation." Every issue of Ad Age includes celebrations of conversations brands start with consumers. But, when conversation crosses the line, why are celebrities and media companies the only ones left as the voice of reason? What, if any, role do marketers have to shape the conversations they advocate? To me, it is clear marketers have an increasingly important part to play -- one that they are intentionally dodging.

Where we are: Passive Activism. Basic corporate social responsibility is the ante for consumer companies. Despite the intended contradiction in terms, marketers have long accepted a mantle of responsibility to support ideals when convenient. There is no shortage of well-designed and compelling campaigns born from marketers who apply their media dollars and creative talent for concepts beyond their brands. In 2012, Benetton won the Presse Lions Grand Prix in Cannes for their "Unhate" campaign featuring world leaders kissing. The campaign raised eyebrows not for the message, but more because of the images featured in the campaign -- including one with the Pope which was quickly pulled. Google's "Made with Code", Secret Deodorant's "Mean Stinks" and Unilever's "Campaign for Real Beauty" are other examples of thoughtful advocacy. While there are many great examples, these types of campaigns often end up as soloists in a chorus singing the same song. The activist voice becomes passive because the topic of choice doesn't evoke passion on the other side of the issue. Marketers gravitate to the motherhood and apple pie and the activism doesn't court controversy.

What is needed: Activation Activism. The concept of +3 Commitment developed by Don Arnoudse represents a standard. Paraphrased, powerful commitment requires more than head nodding in a room and a press release. Most importantly, true advocates must be willing to advance their positions when challenged. To be fair, this requires marketers to have a voice on issues which by definition are controversial -- even when the position being advocated is held by the majority. Traditionally, marketers have avoided the risk of alienating any group of consumers. When Starbuck's, a strong-willed marketer, was forced to backtrack from the #RaceTogether social dialogue, it underscored the complexity. My call-to-action isn't encouraging marketers to inject themselves in every controversy. Their resources should rightly be focused on building their brands. But, when those brand conversations cross paths with digital haters, a more active response is justified. The hard challenge facing marketers is to find the time and place to make that stand. Increasingly, progressive agencies such as Galewill and 72andSunny are recognizing the needs of their clients. Agency partners are positioning themselves to help marketers make these decisions and response. Simultaneous, progressive marketers are reviewing their internal processes and getting ready to enter the fray. Both changes help accelerate the shift to Activation Activism where marketers become more forceful in the dialogue.

As digital hate becomes more pervasive, it is time for marketers to fill their role in the dialogue. It is time to use their voices, creative talent and brand positions to meaningful become part of the solution.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn.