Controversy Is Good For Business

I have learned this year, through Youtube videos, tweets, and breathless fanboy commentary, that male nerds my age have a great affinity for Ghostbusters. I don’t share their attraction; a fine little movie but not one that fascinated me as a child. I am not entirely sure I have even seen the second film, although screenshots online look familiar. Consequently, I had little interest in the forthcoming remake featuring an all female cast. It did seem like the entire premise was crafted to generate chatter around yet another Hollywood rehash no one was clamoring for, but since it would star very solid comedians, I assumed Ghostbuster fans would embrace another go at this “beloved” franchise.

I assumed wrong.

The Ghostbusters trailer is the most disliked movie trailer on Youtube with countless commenters remarking on its perceived poor quality. Yet, a portion of the anger against the film seemed to have to do with the film’s female leads. Writing for The Atlantic, David Sims argued:

Embedded in all of these preemptive and logically flimsy complaints is an obvious subtext: that the issue of appearance matters more than actual quality, and that the idea of a female cast taking up the mantle of a very male film series is just somehow wrong. The 1984 Ghostbusters is indeed a memorable touchstone of the era, an endlessly rewatchable sci-fi comedy that similar films should strive to imitate. Its 1989 sequel, however, is not worth defending, and efforts to make a third film sputtered out over creative differences and star Bill Murray’s outspoken disinterest in every script he was presented with. In short, it’s exactly the kind of franchise film studios look to revive: a well-remembered product that for one reason or another has fallen dormant.

Unlike many Hollywood reboots, Feig’s revival actually offers something different from what came before it. The prospect of a large-scale genre film starring only women (with men such as Thor’s Chris Hemsworth in supporting roles) was shocking enough that it prompted the announcement of an all-male Ghostbusters remake starring Channing Tatum last year. It seemed the film was intended as a kind of counter-balance to Feig’s film, but the idea was eventually scrapped because of its sheer irrelevance, as was any talk of a “Ghostbusters cinematic universe.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Donald Trump even chimed in on the “controversy.”

A few weeks prior, Old Navy released a routine print ad featuring a multiracial family as its models. As expected, racist alt-right trolls descended on the ad and its creators as a manifestation of “white genocide.” In response, multi-racial couples posted pictures of their families and gave the proverbial middle finger to the trolls, including John McCain’s son.


Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 10.26.18 AM

It was a nice, if small, show of resistance to crass racists. Having a mixed race household, my wife and I toyed with the idea of joining in with other multi-ethnic families online. It may be a cliché, but Internet trolling is no match for actual love. It can be helpful to remind the world of that, even in the cesspool known as Twitter.

We opted to not join the meme. Not because we are ashamed of our family and our cultural backgrounds: far from it. Rather, I did not want to celebrate our family under the banner of a corporation (one with a troubled labor record at that). What is abundantly apparent in both the Ghostbusters and Old Navy “controversies” is the way it benefits the corporation and its product. Ruth Graham rightly observed the following:

Old Navy apparently didn’t orchestrate the fuss—it wasn’t a full ad campaign, just a photo—but they were happy to take advantage of the attention. “We are a brand with a proud history of championing diversity and inclusion,” Old Navy spokeswoman Debbie Felix said in a statement. “At Old Navy, everyone is welcome.” The sale announcement was retweeted more than 7,000 times, compared to the usual 10 or 20 for other tweets from the account. Jack McCain’s response, which handily included the hashtag #OldNavy, was even more popular.

By now, this is a familiar template: 1. Brand implicitly endorses a mainstream progressive cause. 2. Small band of monsters reacts predictably. 3. Right-thinking Americans rush to embrace and defend the brand. Sometimes the backlash comes from stray jackasses on social media, other times from organizations such as the conservative media watchdog organization One Million Moms, whose recent efforts have included protesting Campbell’s Soup and Chobani ads for featuring gay couples. No matter how the fracas plays out, everybody wins in the end: The trolls get attention, responders get the warm and fuzzy pleasure of combating hate, and the brand comes out looking like a crusader for justice.

Having now met some prominent alt-right trolls in person, it’s clear that many of its adherents are driven by the attention they get for their comments online. They get to “be someone” for making anti-Semitic and racist tweets at celebrities and corporations while then having said tweets end up in major publications. At the same time, right-minded individuals get to feel heroic taking on these trolls. All the while, a corporation is receiving invaluable free advertising and exposure, increasing their brand identification with a larger audience. I would be flabbergasted if marketing departments were not fully aware of how irate denunciation of their ads actually helps spread their product to audiences beyond its preliminary target market.

It’s understandable to stand up against misogynistic or racist individuals online; I am not in favor of simply ignoring them outright. I have spent the last few months writing about the alt-right to better understand and then confront the movement, but let’s avoid being pawns in a corporate marketing campaign. Big businesses are not champions of social justice, just clever exploiters of the public’s values.

Staff Writer

Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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43 thoughts on “Controversy Is Good For Business

  1. “…but let’s avoid being pawns in a corporate marketing campaign. Big businesses are not champions of social justice, just clever exploiters of the public’s values.”

    While I generally agree with this sentiment, I think you’ve (seemingly admittedly?) chosen two instances in which this was not a corporate marketing campaign. It would take an awful lot of cynicism to argue that the entire Ghostbusters reboot was intended to drum up controversy; there is simply too much money invested in a movie that size to rest its success on how angry (and counter-angry) people get. And while the Old Navy ad could more easily fit the mold, it too does not seem intentional.

    As I discussed on Dwyer’s post a little ways back, the use of the term “controversy” is an interesting one for a few reasons. For starters, it immediately legitimizes both sides, putting them on equal-ish standing. Further, it often assumes motives that are not present.

    If every company that uses multi-racial families in an ad is assumed to be acting intentionally controversially to drum up business, than we’ve essentially made it impossible to include them. Which means the nutjobs have won.


    • Agreed.

      I assume they went with an all-female Ghostbusters cuz they wanted to. Bridesmaids was a success. There is a hunger out there for more diversity in Hollywood. So why not? It might be fun.

      Now, will it be a good movie? I dunno. Bridesmaids was funny. Ghostbusters is a pretty straightforward setup. It would be hard to screw it up too badly. On the other hand, it would also be hard to hit it out of the park. I dunno. I can imagine a male-dominated version of the franchise would have the same issues.

      Blah. Whatever.

      Nerd-misogyny is its own kind of awful. It’s actually really pathetic. It’s like, these guys really are the losers we think they are. Again and again they step up and prove it — nope, they really are that bad. Sadsacks who ain’t half as clever as they think they are, and when you call them on it, they freak out hard.

      It’s like, get over high school loser boy. Fuckheads.


      • It struck me as kind of obvious, in fact. I mean, “Bridesmaids” (and some subsequent movies) have shown that their is a strong interest for female-driven/oriented raunchy comedies; the selected actors have a strong pedigree of comedic work; and retreads are the name of the game.

        The funny thing is that some percentage of the detractors are criticizing it because it seems to tickle one of their pet peeves (“diversity”) while the reality is it is actually evidence of one of their causes celebre (profit).


    • Good point about the term “controversy” . I don’t think it is radical or crazy for them to cast a movie with female front women, but I do think the production company/producers/director knew they could get some added buzz for doing it. I remember in 2012-13, it was floated that Seth Rogen might star in a new Ghostbusters, and the response to the idea was tepid. I don’t know if fanboys hated the idea, but it definitely didn’t get people talking about the property like the McCarthy female cast has.

      At the end of the day, Hollywood knows that they have plenty of films on the horizon that are just retreads of old properties. How do you get people to care about these products and actually make it a goal to support them with money? A little “controversy” to drum up free press never hurts.

      Off the top of my head, I remember the whole “controversy” with the George Lucas produced Red Tails. No studio wanted to release it. Lucas said it was because it was a mostly black cast and Hollywood is averse to that. He talked about it on Oprah and there was a concerted effort by some in the black community to support the film in principle. The movie, in my estimation, was really terrible. Now I don’t know what was going on in George’s mind, but I imagine he could both think Hollywood was against his film for racist reasons while also recognizing that a little controversy couldn’t hurt getting people to show up.


  2. I had a feeling that a lot of alt-right trolls essentially did it for the attention.

    There are two old cliches coming to my mind over this. “There is no such thing as bad publicity (except an obituary)” and “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

    The corporations would probably prefer not to be trolled and just to have people get excited about their movies or want to buy their clothes or whatever. But I think that ad and marketing companies are savvy enough to realize that there is going to be pusback usually and they are planning accordingly. Or they know how to act quickly and turn trolling and attacks into something positive. This is the world we live in now.

    I guess it is predictable but unfortunate that Ghostbusters is getting attacked. FWIW I watched the trailer and it looked decent. I’ll probably end up seeing the movie. But fandom (sometimes called fandumb) is a strong and strange beast and from what I’ve observed nerd rage cannot be succored into a calm state.


    • The corporations would probably prefer not to be trolled and just to have people get excited about their movies

      HILLARY would probably prefer not to be trolled and just to have people get excited about HER CAMPAIGN.

      … sorry, had to do it.


  3. I would be flabbergasted if marketing departments were not fully aware of how irate denunciation of their ads actually helps spread their product to audiences beyond its preliminary target market.


    But I bet they are even more aware of how easy it is to come out on the wrong end of one of these things. It’s really easy for a social media intern to do something that is damaging to their brand. Between Gawker and the rest, it is far easier to do that than to purposefully pull off a campaign that relies on baiting the alt-right. These are very tricky shores to navigate.


    • Fair point but these are official trailers put on youtube and a serious ad campaign. I don’t think examples Roland picked are 20 year old interns being given the twitter and instagram accounts.


  4. Um. You’re talking about members of the alt-right who are trolls…
    Trolling the alt-right is the proper response, and, done properly, it’ll make you some serious cash.

    Just, for the love of god, people! Don’t feed the bots!


      • You need to catch the next backlash before it happens.

        TV commercials with jackbooted thugs (make a killing off ammo)… Confederate flags (prebought before the controversy).

        My current guess (and I’m not the one making money) is some sort of backlash against trannies in bathrooms. In fact, you could market one yourself. Make that some sort of sign saying (pictorally!) that trannies are not welcome in the women’s room ( a woman with a dingle, and then crossed out would work. props if you can make that more “liberally offensive”).

        Like a lot of other things, its hard to catch a falling knife, but a lot easier if you start the avalanche.


  5. I’m seen nothing on the new GB movie, but I really fail to see the value in a re-boot. Most of the re-boots I’ve seen have been “ok” and certainly not worth paying 15 dollars to see.

    And I don’t find melissa mcarthy funny. Based upon the trailer, it looks like they lifted whole scenes from the old move. Thank god they didn’t tart up the girls outfits.


        • Archer is hilarious, but it’s probably hard to see that in snippets. What make it work is its relentlessness. Archer isn’t just an ahole, he’s an ahole all the time, turned up to 11 [1], and his only redeeming feature is that his mother is even worse.

          1. (After drunkenly bringing home a dog.) “Woodhouse, get rid of it. And if when I come back, I find even one dog hair, I’m going to rub your beady little eyes with sand. Also, buy some sand.”


  6. I dislike both sides of the Ghostbusters thing. Why remake Ghostbusters with a female cast when you could just … do something else with the same cast? And why would anyone care about a Ghostbusters remake, especially enough to get mad about it?


      • This seems to be as good a time as any for me to state my firm belief that the structure of the large western comic books (enormous, shared universes with a single “canon” stretching back decades) has seriously hobbled the ability of western comic book writers to produce good literature.


        • Deadpool did fine.
          *shrugs* It’s been hard to get competent writers on comic books.

          Fate/Stay Night had 2000 pages of fucking backstory, for god’s sake. (written by one guy). They’ve made sequels and prequels and etc. etc.etc. off the damn notes file (partially because that guy found new projects to write backstory for).

          It’s possible to get good stories and a nice big universe… but you do have to build it that way.


      • I don’t know, I would not mind having a character reimagined as “a gay half black half Mexican” if it means we can actually do something different with the character. How many times can we see the exact same story with the existing properties? I was a big comic book fan in my youth, and I tried to read a few in my late 20s. It was the same thing I saw, almost exactly, to those I read in late 80s/90s.

        If they have to change the characters identity to move the character into new property, then so be it.


        • To my mind, the problem isn’t reimagining the character per se (although in this particular case you probably want to avoid too much similarity to “Shanghai Noon”), it’s:

          – Having him played by a white dude, especially considering the history of having Native American characters played by Hispanic actors (note: this is exactly the same issue as race-lifting Khan in the Star Trek reboot, even down to the “originally played by a Hispanic actor” angle).

          – Having that actor be Johnny Depp, who pulled exactly the same crap in “Pirates of the Caribbean”, and it worked, and he hasn’t realized that he caught lightning in a bottle (in fact, it really only worked to full effect in the first movie, after that at least part of the appeal was momentum).


    • I think I pretty much agree. I like the cast they put together for Ghostbusters and would see them in other work, but I can’t get all that excited about this current project. Maybe that is why I don’t understand the anger some men online seem to have for the project.

      Now let’s say they recast a property I care about, like Star Wars, with women and black actors? What would I say then?


    • The age of the franchise and the reboot existed long before the new Ghostbusters cast was announced. I don’t like it that much either but I am not sure what is going to put the genie back in the bottle. Most of these franchise films and reboots have huge fan bases and it is clear that they win a lot of cash. Fandom (especially on-line) fandom seems to be getting more female oriented and/or developing into a battle of the Somme between traditional geeks (who tend to be older white dudes) and younger fans (who seem to be generally female). Put the two together and there you have it. The PTBs thought that an all female Ghostbusters would bring in Le Big Bucks.

      Why people get mad? Fandom has a strong source of identity for a lot of people and they see an all-female Ghostbusters has being an existential threat to their lives/importance. The older fans are being replaced by someone and no longer a key demographic to be courted to.


    • Not many people are going to say, “You must go see this film.” Nor will find many people saying, “You must talk about this film, care about this film, etc.”

      If you’re attitude is “whatevs,” then whatevs. I don’t know about, nor care about, most films that get made. If I hear they’re making a movie I might like, but then see a trailer and think, “nah, not for me,” then whatevs.

      The issue here is simply, these guys HATE that an all-female version is getting made. That’s a different sort of thing.


      • “An all-female version of Ghostbusters is a good idea” seems to me to be about the same sentiment as “an all-female version of Ghostbusters is a bad idea”. I will remain firmly in the camp of “an all-female version of Ghosbusters is a non idea”. That one side of the issue is more passionate than the other is, well, in the words of Richard Little’s head, interesting if true.


        • I dunno. It sounds to me like you’re advocating some kind of false neutrality. These things are not neutral. Nor are they symmetrical. There is a context here.

          I certainly hope to see more diversity in Hollywood, at every level: more diverse stories, told by diverse writers, with diverse characters. I want to see characters such as myself, written by people like me. I rarely get to see that.

          And Sturgeon’s Law applies to all of this. So thus, if nerd-oriented genre properties have fewer than 1% of “people like me,” and if “90% of everything is crap” — well, P(A&B) = P(A)*P(B|A), so unless Sturgeon’s Law somehow only applies to dudes (unlikely), maybe we can get that 1% to go up a bit.

          Which is to say, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the new Ghostbusters is gonna be kinda mediocre, cuz it’s hard to create really good stuff. Likewise the new Star Wars was fun, but really pretty meh. But still, we got a badass Jedi girl in the lead role. That was nice. I can look past a lot of cliché to see something like that.

          On the other hand, the new Mad Max was an action masterwork, and while Max is the point-of-view character, at least we get an amazing woman as dramatic protagonist.

          And then there is Jessica Jones —

          But these things are rare, while most stuff is still by-and-about-and-for dudes.

          Perhaps you don’t notice how male-dominated our culture spaces are, particularly most genre-space. A fish doesn’t notice it’s wet.


  7. The original Ghostbusters was not particularly a good comedy. It was loud and shiny and had lots of special effects and production values, but it wasn’t especially funny. It started out well, with Bill Murray as an obvious charlatan, making up to the pretty girl and zapping her boyfriend while totally subverting the premise of the experiment, but once the ghosts turned out to be real, it got lazy. Dan Aykroyd did what he always did in movies in those days, play a character that would have been kind of OK in a five-minute sketch for ninety of them. Harold Ramis was just wooden. Now that I think about it, the female characters (Sigourney Weaver and Annie Potts) were among the best things in it. (Rick Moranis was good too.)


  8. I’m generally against remakes, and was sorta against remaking Ghostbusters when I first heard about it. My default position was: How about staying in the same continuity? Do we really need to *remake* it? Can’t we just do a ‘Ghostbusters III’, or, if we don’t want that, a ‘Ghostbusters: The Next Generation’, or a name that is less lame?

    Then you do a movie with the premise the events of GB II basically got rid of all the ghosts in New York, and the ‘Ghostbusters’ corporation essentially disbanded two decades ago due to lack of people hiring them for that. (And they are pretty famous, so speaking fees are a lot more lucrative. And huge research grants.)

    Then the movie invents some new invasions of ghosts, and invent reasons the original team can’t come and help. (Egon, of course, would be dead in-universe. But the others get cameos.) Oh, but they still own this firehouse you can use, and some of the equipment they left in it is probably still working…

    Not quite sure why we didn’t get that movie. And if they want to do a ‘cinematic universes’, having events that ‘legitimately’ happened 30 years ago to cause a divergence seems like it would be useful, instead of having to explain via flashbacks. Now everyone *knows* about the paranormal in that universe…that gives all sorts of storytelling possibilities as scientists do stupid stuff. (And also, the government can only do the ‘the giant load of marshmallows everywhere was a scam by crazy people’ once…especially since at the end of the second movie they had to put the Statue of Liberty back!)

    But whatever. I’m not sure that Ghostbusters had that great a continuity that we really need to worry about keeping it around anyway. Parts of it were kinda silly.

    So if you’re not going to keep the continuity, why do it as a Ghostbusters movie? Well, presumably, it’s a way to signal exactly what sort of movie it is. There will be a bunch of nerdy people, way out of their depth, running around with nuclear accelerators on their back trying to contain ghosts.

    Sounds like fun.


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