Is Gap Inc Exploiting Racial Tension to Raise Brand Awareness?

In the past month, Gap Inc. has twice incited angry Twitter debates around the topic of race, and, in doing so, has benefited from free national press coverage and increased brand visibility.

The first, on April 2nd, was for Gap Kids. The image, above the caption of 'meet the kids who are proving that girls can do anything', included two white girls in poses that look quite painful, next to a third white girl using a smaller black girl as an armrest. The Tweet drew ire from many, who called it racist for portraying the black girl as merely furniture. 

The result of the controversy? As of May 4th the Tweet had 741 retweets, 2.1K likes, and (according to Google News Search) 214 news articles, including Business Insider, Fortune, and Huffington Post. Even all five of the remaining people on MySpace shared it.

Compare this to the 15 subsequent Gap Kids Tweets, which combined for 460 retweets, 2K likes, and no press coverage. 

Let's now jump to April 29th, when Old Navy -- a Gap Inc. brand -- releases what becomes another controversial Tweet involving race. The image shows a happy interracial family with the risque tagline of 'take 30% off your entire purchase'. 

The Tweet created another Twitterstorm, with some racists accusing Old Navy of advocating 'forced blending'. (And here I was hoping modern-day racists would be too dumb to use a keyboard.)

These reactions led to counter-reactions, with many Tweeting their support of interracial marriages using the hashtag #LoveWins. 

Mind you, this is all for an ad promoting a 30% off deal.

The result? So far this Tweet has driven a staggering 6.5K retweets, 17.2K likes, and 105 news articles, including CBS News, CNN, and Time. Even Perez Hilton covered it, after taking a break from conjecturing who'll be Kelly Ripa's new co-host (#spoiler, with his ability to energize a room, how can it not be Ben Carson?). The Facebook post of the same image drove an additional 12K likes, substantially higher than the 37 likes their previous post had.

Oh, and to get to 17.2K likes, you have to add up the likes of Old Navy's previous 252 Tweets. Put another way, in six days Old Navy has generated more likes than it had in the previous 163 days combined. Of course, Twitter Likes isn't what moves the stock (that, of course, is a sheep herder), but it's an easy-to-measure metric that executives love to obsess over, similar to gross margin and the number of days since needing a government bailout.

Now, that's twice in a month that Gap brands have ridden the coattails of a racial controversy to get spectacular press coverage and social visibility. Is this a coincidence, or has Gap Inc. finally mastered the viral power of Twitterstorms?

After all, the Gap Kids Tweet is still up, even after they issued an apology, making it an easy target for another debate about whether it should still be up, thereby further increasing brand penetration.

Plus, assuming every decision by a company with 1,100 stores and 9M+ social followers isn't made drunkenly, Old Navy had to know that such an image would provoke a response (as sad as that may be).

So, was it done to be socially progressive, or did they purposefully exploit racial tensions to create viral buzz? And does Gap Inc. have more of these planned? Maybe Banana Republic has a 20% off Father's Day sale, punctuated by an image of two males holding up a baby. Or maybe Athleta releases a new brand of Yoga pants catered to bullied teens.

That said, it's unlikely there's a master conspiracy spearheaded by the Gap Inc. Board of Directors. But the question remains: what happens if we do see brands manipulating Twitter to incite publicity-generating Twitterstorms? Moreover, it can even be done -- like Old Navy -- under the guise of being progressive and accepting. 

Ultimately, is such manipulation even bad, if it helps raise awareness that discrimination is far from dead? 

I don't have an answer. What about you?