The Asda supermarket chain is the latest big brand to feel the power of a Twitter backlash after the furore surrounding an offensive ‘mental patient’ Halloween costume forced the retailer to withdraw the piece from its online store.
In recent years the rise of social media has given the consumer a powerful voice to speak out against household brands. This means that small issues can become big PR disasters.
Asda has been forced to withdraw the offending Halloween outfit and has quickly offered "sincere apologies for the offence it has caused". The ‘mental patient’ costume cost £20.00 and featured a torn straightjacket, fake blood, a mask and a fake meat cleaver.
While condemnation came from all quarters, including "stunned" mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness, much of the backlash circulated on Twitter. Christina Wilmowski wrote "Why do @Asda think it's OK to make a Mental Health costume? Would you make a Cancer Patient costume?" while a number of high profile personalities known for living with mental health problems also joined the campaign.
Former Downing Street Director of Communication, Alistair Campbell, tweeted "Look what Asda's selling... what possesses these people?" while former Liverpool FC striker Stan Collymore criticised the store for reinforcing a stereotype.
He tweeted: "Do you actually realise how many people are hanging themselves because of being frightened of the stigma?"
In a matter of hours the storm of criticism caused Asda to remove the product from their store during the potentially lucrative run up to Halloween. In a bid to stem the flow of negative PR, Asda has also pledged to make a "very sizeable donation" to mental health charity Mind.
The message from the organisation is that it will not tolerate the trivialisation or stigmatisation of mental illness and while many will say it would have been better if this incident had never occurred, the way a company reacts to negative PR can be just as important.
In an official statement Asda apologised said: "[The costume] should never have been sold and it was withdrawn as soon as it was brought to our attention.
"We're deeply sorry one of our fancy dress costumes has upset people."
This highlights the importance of good reputation management awareness.
Stuart Brandwood at HitSearch said: "The management team of a company the size of Asda cannot possibly micro-manage the marketing of each and every product they sell both in-store and online. No system is perfect and inevitably unfortunate occurrences like this will happen, the key is how they are dealt with.
"Because the management of Asda were made aware of the problem online and took swift and decisive measures to rectify and redress the damage they will have limited the offence and hurt felt by people who suffer from mental illness and that can only be a positive thing."