How much responsibility should an organization take for the unsafe activities people undertake?
Internet culture has become increasingly fond of the “challenge,” in which internet users share videos of themselves doing silly and sometimes dangerous things out in the real world. Recent examples include the “In My Feelings” challenge and now the “Bird Box” challenge—the latter inspired by a recent Netflix film.
The film, starring Sandra Bullock, is a suspense-thriller in which the characters travel through a dystopian landscape wearing a blindfold to avoid becoming possessed. The movie has inspired some YouTubers to go out into the world with blindfolds, for as long as 24 hours, to see whether they can stay out of trouble.
What could possibly go wrong?
Netflix has taken to its social media channels to ask users, pretty please, to use their eyes out there.
Can’t believe I have to say this, but: PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE. We don’t know how this started, and we appreciate the love, but Boy and Girl have just one wish for 2019 and it is that you not end up in the hospital due to memes.
— Netflix US (@netflix) January 2, 2019
It’s a cycle that many have recognized from the Tide Pod challenge and other internet stunts that have sent communicators scrambling to combat internet groupthink and peer pressure.
Welcome back to one of the most reliable phenomena on the Internet: a news story about a viral challenge that is (1) dangerous and (2) said to be loved by teens. At the beginning of 2018, people were freaking out over the idea of the Tide Pod challenge, or eating Tide Pods on camera for views. The challenge started as a meme that involved joking about eating Tide Pods, which look like a cartoon dessert. And then, a few teens ate them for views, and the challenge became a weeks-long news topic.
A few months after that, panic about a condom challenge went viral, even though (as The Washington Post found) the challenge barely existed and was being discussed because of a news aggregation equivalent of a game of telephone.
Despite the danger, the blindfold meme has taken off.
The Washington Post continued:
The #BirdBoxChallenge hashtag started showing up within days of the movie’s release on Netflix. One early video, recirculated on a few meme accounts, shows a dad accidentally walking his toddler into a wall while trying to re-create one of the movie’s blindfolded scenes. Another mildly viral early adopter shows a group walking down a Brooklyn street. The video is staged to make it appear as if one participant bolts from the group and falls down the stairs of a subway station.
There are plenty of examples of people doing the meme without putting themselves in immediate peril, or pretending to. Another variation involves re-creating a scene in which the movie’s evil force imitates the voice of someone important to the blindfolded family to trick them into looking[…]
[…]Some, with relatively few views until Netflix’s warning, showed people driving while blindfolded (or at least pretending to). Another video follows a would-be “Bird Box” challenger to the hospital after, the caption says, she broke her foot doing a practice run.
Netflix ordinarily would love the attention, but any viral success sours if someone gets hurt performing one of these challenges—and that’s not something the company can control.
Netflix was more than happy with the harmless Bird Box memes that helped propel the movie into stardom, but supporting that level of fan service comes with consequences. Once something like the Bird Box challenge starts trending, more and more people want to get involved. Someone starts a challenge on Facebook or Instagram, it becomes a hit among teens on apps like TikTok, and then it winds up on YouTube where creators with millions of followers take advantage of a trending hashtag in an attempt to reach more viewers.
The cost of producing a worldwide phenomenon, like Bird Box or “In My Feelings,” is realizing that there’s no ownership of whatever trend comes next. It exists online, and therefore everything is free game. Whereas Drake celebrated the challenge by including it in his lengthy music video for the song and performing it onstage, Netflix has taken a different route, essentially asking people to stop.
Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Bird Box belongs to the internet now, and this is what people want to do.
By posting a warning, Netflix has managed to thread this delicate needle. Here are three lessons from its tweet:
1. Use your authentic voice.
Netflix’s warning didn’t adopt a patronizing tone when it was time to ask people to be more careful with their internet stunts. It’s important for every message from your social media handles to keep the brand voice you have been building for months or years with regular posts.
If you haven’t been developing that voice, you are missing a very important tool in your crisis communications toolbox.
2. Don’t promote the behavior you want to avoid.
These challenges—and much of internet culture—is all about generating more visibility. Be careful that your warning doesn’t reward risk seekers.
3. Use humor—if appropriate.
Humor is valuable currency on social media. If you can give your message wit and character, you are far more likely to get it seen by more people. However, if the message doesn’t have room for humor, or might offend, leave your comedy routine at home. Otherwise, you might get the wrong kind of attention.
How would you advise Netflix to respond, PR Daily readers?