What Happens When the Front Page of the Internet Turns on You? Axe Steals Reddit Content and Finds Out

By Katie Meyer

Reddit has become one of the largest and most popular sources of user-generated content on the Internet. News aggregators — from the Daily Mail to Gawker — mine the site for viral stories, funny quotes, and even celebrity interviews. As a seemingly unlimited and free fountain of grassroots content, the site is a dream solution for the 24 hour content cycle. Reddit’s huge and active audience is also a dream for brand managers.

Putting the two unique benefits together, a campaign that uses Reddit content and is promoted on Reddit would seem like a marketing coup. And because Reddit users are anonymous, that means intellectual property laws do not apply to their content, right?

A screencap from Axe’s Shower Thoughts campaign.

Axe may have been operating under this set of assumptions when it used content from Reddit in its Shower Thoughts campaign.

Axe, like many brands and celebrities before it, forgot that Reddit is just as capable of uniting around strong opinions as it is spreading diverse content. Reddit isn’t just a content source, it’s a community with a set of shared views. For example, the Reddit community has an Atheist and contrarian bent; Redditors generally distrust Mother Teresa and frequently upvote posts maligning the saint to the front page.

When the Axe used an /r/showerthoughts submission in an ad campaign, what did Redditors do to the brand?

Reddit 101

The front page of Reddit is the top 25 pieces of content in an unlimited list of links submitted or created by users of the site. This default list loads for any visitors who haven’t customized the Reddit content they see; it’s made up of content from default subreddits chosen by the Reddit team and then upvoted (liked) by the most users. These subreddits are forums based around specific topics, from /r/twoxchromosomes (for feminism and women’s issues) to /r/news.

/r/showerthoughts is a default subreddit in which Redditors submit profound (or not so profound) thoughts they’ve had while showering. Posts from /r/showerthoughts frequently attract enough upvotes to make it to the front page, where they’re seen by millions. On August 30, 2015, user JaSfields’ submitted a text post to /r/showerthoughts: “When you’re criticised for being short, they’re really just saying the worst thing about you is that there isn’t more of you.” The post went viral on the site.

Free Creative!

Defy Media and Mindshare Entertainment, Axe’s agencies, used /r/showerthoughts in a spring ad campaign called Shower Thoughts. The first video, uploaded to YouTube on March 24, 2016, caught the attention of Redditors quickly. The title of the subreddit and JaSfield’s popular post were used word for word in the ad.

Borrowing content from various sources on the Internet is common: Reddit took issue with the lack of sourcing. No credit was given and no compensation paid.

Axe did not anticipate that the sprawling grassroots forum could react as one unified community. As with many other brands who have experienced a Reddit crisis, the community’s ability to come together and exact revenge was a surprise.

Reddit Revenge

Reddit, eager to avenge the uncredited source, generated thousands of pieces of content that pilloried Axe — posts, links to news sources (about the posts), and comments. Much of this content climbed Reddit’s aggregated list of links toward the front page, attracting thousands of upvotes (and impressions).

Redditors also stormed YouTube: Episode 1, containing JaSField’s quote, has 666 upvotes and 18,876 downvotes. In Reddit’s trademark satirical style, the comments on the video quickly became a self-mocking collection of barbs aimed at both Axe and Reddit’s neckbeardism (neckbeardity?).

Reddit has its own culture: shared ideals and narratives that sorts submitted content, assigning value. Reddit can be a double-edged sword if you don’t understand the site as a community as well as a content source. Axe ran afoul of Reddit’s sourcing values (open source, but original creators credited) and fell into two of Reddit’s favourite narratives. First, the wronged man, in which JaSfields was not given adequate credit for his work. Though the site often recycles content, the official policy (and value) on Reddit is to punish users who reuse content that isn’t theirs. Had Axe had checked the submission page on /r/ShowerThoughts before using content from the subreddit, this shared value would have been glaringly obvious.

The second narrative is that of the underdog: Axe filling the role of a giant, evil, corporate Goliath against Reddit’s David. But in battles like these, Reddit never loses.

The campaign turned into a crisis for the brand on YouTube as damage to Axe and benefits for its competitors were delivered immediately by angry Redditors. In the words of one YouTube commenter, thefinalcountdown650: “Hey i’m never buying Axe products again you fucking thieves Oldspiceforlife.”

Axe persevered with the campaign. Within 30 days of Shower Thoughts Episode 1 (with JaSfield’s quote), Axe uploaded three more Shower Thoughts videos to its YouTube channel. Redditors and others downvoted (disliked) these videos sharply, and as a result they did not perform as well as Axe’s less expensive, less promoted campaigns. The episodes following Episode 1 have less than 10% of its views. Axe’s “How to Do a Manbun” video has more views than “Shower Thoughts Episode 2: Featuring Chester See.”

Twitter Fallout

Axe has struggled to connect with users over its official social channels over the past year. The #FindYourMagic campaign that the company launched in January on YouTube wasn’t catching on (the campaign’s failure could have been a catalyst for Shower Thoughts). In the month before it posted the first Shower Thoughts episode, @Axe averaged 126 likes, comments, or replies per tweet on Twitter. For a global brand with 134,000 followers, that’s abysmal.

To reach more Twitter users, Axe tried to compensate for low engagement numbers by tweeting more. Sending 88 tweets from February 23 to March 23, the brand averaged just 369.7 engagements (likes, comments, retweets) per day.

As shown in the Crowdbabble graph above, user engagement with @Axe increased during March Madness — but only slightly. How did the Reddit crisis impact the brand?

Engagement for @Axe during the Shower Thoughts campaign fell by more than a third to just 200 engagements (likes, replies, and retweets) per tweet. The Crowdbabble graph below shows engagement from March 23 to April 23 2016.

The Shower Thoughts campaign could have been a massive coup for the brand on social media. The first tweet sharing Episode 1 of Shower Thoughts attracted 1,217 likes, comments, and retweets: well above average for @Axe. The comments were largely positive, but the attention was short lived. Redditors went to work on the video, downvoting it into oblivion.

Engagement on Axe’s official social channels flatlined, hitting a low at the beginning of April when threads on Reddit began to appear about the direct quotation.

On Reddit, the initial threads didn’t seem so bad: in the community’s typical contrarian fashion, the most upvoted comments actually defended Axe. But even with positive comments, the front-page visibility of the negative threads undermined the campaign and @Axe as a whole.

On April 7th and 8th, New York Magazine and The Washington Post published stories about the social media crisis, and users’ connection with @Axe continued to fall. In the month that the campaign ran, @Axe lost 79 followers on Twitter. The Crowdbabble visualization below shows an array of statistics from March 23, the day before Shower Thoughts Episode 1 was uploaded, to April 23 2016:

Twitter accounts with more than 100,000 followers can expect regular growth of at least 10 followers per day. As Twitter users backed away from the embattled brand, this upward inertia evaporated. Moreover, @Axe lost followers it already had. When a brand is in crisis, users back away from it — no one wants to be associated with a brand that is viewed as being on the wrong side of a hot-button issue (see: The Academy).

Reddit’s hatred of Axe is still visible on its front page: hating Axe has become one of the community’s core ideals. In the last week of April, a Today I Learned post made it to the front page: “TIL that Axe advertising was targeted to work on insecure males. The ads were so succesful that the brand eventually backpedaled, as the brand was being too closely associated with their target group.” The damage Reddit’s new antagonism towards Axe will do to the brand in the long term is difficult to estimate — when the community feels like expressing their feelings about Axe in a post, it’s likely to make it to the front page, where it will be seen by hundreds of thousands of users and potentially picked up by thousands of news outlets.

Axe could be in for a perpetual crisis that unfolds in waves of thousands of impressions on content that originates on Reddit. How do you recover from turning the largest community on the Internet against you?

Redemption?

Making amends with the community would allow Axe to heal on its official social channels, including Twitter. To save its social reputation, Axe did what many brands have done when faced with a social media crisis: come clean and apologize (see: Domino’s). Axe tried to turn its legion of Reddit haters into fans by reversing its mistake, giving credit and compensation to JaSfields. The brand commissioned JaSfields to work on a new ad with a new shower thought.

But Reddit didn’t really care. When JaSfields posted the commissioned campaign to a default subreddit, the video only gained 588 upvotes and didn’t make it to the front page. The apology post undermined the community’s outrage, but most of the community didn’t see it: the post received less than a quarter of the upvotes of the most popular anti-Axe post.

Given that Reddit shows no mercy to Mother Teresa, a literal saint, Axe’s chances of redemption were never stellar. Though the company tried to solve the problem at its source and made reparations to Reddit, Axe will continue to feel the site’s outrage on its social accounts. Hating Axe is now part of Reddit’s culture and belief system: this means the Reddit Army is more likely to upvote any content slamming Axe to the front page. The thousands of negative impressions those posts generate will push users on more mainstream social networks away from the brand. It’ll take a long time — and a shift in strategy — for @Axe’s engagement and follower growth to recover.

As fictional m/ad man Don Draper once said: “if you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation.”

If Axe can’t get back on Reddit’s good side with a collaboration, the company could do well by moving in a completely different direction. The Crowdbabble keyword cloud below captures @Axe’s most used keywords over the past month, during the Shower Thoughts campaign. Perhaps in an attempt to change the conversation, the company hasn’t tweeted about Shower Thoughts at all.

The brand pinned the #FindYourMagic campaign to the top of its Twitter feed and halted Shower Thoughts promotion. But this might not be enough: Axe’s follower count continues to fall.

The Reddit Paradox

The issue of who owns content generated on Reddit is a thorny one; in theory, a user could go after an aggregator for using pictures or quotes without compensating the source. But few Reddit users seem interested in or willing to do that. This seems to confer unlimited access to everything Reddit users generate. But using this content as if it’s source free is dangerous for brands who do not understand Reddit’s hivemind — and its powerful ability to make opinions go viral (see: Reddit’s support of Bernie Sanders). Without understanding Reddit as a community, brands miss the boundaries that the site’s users have collectively drawn around permissible usage of the content they create.

Axe wasn’t sharing Reddit’s content, but using it in a corporate campaign to sell products. Without a noble journalistic purpose (if Viral Nova’s slideshows can be called that), Axe’s appropriation of their quotes was considered theft by Reddit users. Blatant word-for-word reposts could get you banned.

What did Axe misunderstand so profoundly about the front page of the Internet?

Even though the marketing team behind the campaign obviously saw Reddit as a good source of content, Axe perhaps underestimated the power of the site as a community that can create and push agendas. This Reddit paradox is often missed by brands: Reddit is the largest, most diverse community on the Internet with the narrowest set of ideals. The decentralized community has a centralized, rigid belief system.

Though the content on Reddit is diverse — sourced from hundreds of thousands of users — it only makes it to the front page if Redditors collectively decide that it is worthy and upvote it enough. This selective process narrows down Reddit’s viral content to fit a set of community rules and ideals. Content that conforms dominates the front page, and the front page becomes an expression of the community’s beliefs: its love of the Matterhorn, faith in technology as the solution (to literally anything), or total disinterest in climate change. The worthy selected content, the stuff that makes it to the front page because it conforms to the hivemind’s belief system, becomes a powerful agenda because it is used by so many sources and then seen by so many people.

A screenshot from Axe’s Shower Thoughts campaign.

Axe apparently forgot, or wasn’t aware, of the Reddit paradox: the grassroots community’s ability to come together under a few key banner ideals. Those ideals include mob vigilantism toward those who have wronged the community. When the #RedditArmy learned that their content had been “stolen”, their counterattack unfolded with military speed and precision, delivering sharp blows to Axe’s online performance. Two weeks after the last Shower Thoughts campaign video was uploaded, Axe’s following on Twitter has continued to contract and engagement has stayed flat.

Axe’s social media crisis on Reddit is a cautionary tale for brands eager to take advantage of the front page of the Internet’s huge audience and limitless content library. As Axe discovered by running afoul of /r/showerthoughts, Reddit’s promise of unlimited free content (and eyeballs) is also a trap.


All data visualizations were created in Crowdbabble. This story is part of a series on social media crisis management.