Szechuan Fury: Are Brands Responsible for Their Fans?

I’d like to start with an image: a grown man climbing on top of a McDonald’s serving counter, jumping up and down like a toddler throwing a tantrum because there is not, of all things, a particular McNugget cartoon tie-in dipping sauce.

Let’s continue with another image: crowds of adults surrounding McDonald’s across the country, chanting “We want sauce! We want sauce!”

Imagine scenes like these repeating themselves around the country as people lose their minds over the unavailability of, of all things, a McDonald’s Szechuan-flavored sauce originally released in 1998 as a marketing tie-in with Disney’s Mulan. Imagine all of this is being done in the name of an adult-oriented cartoon show. Now imagine being the people who own it.

To their credit, the creators of Rick & Morty – the sci-fi cartoon that is at the very center of this mess – publicly and immediately spoke out against these displays. None of this was their fault; co-creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon didn’t come up with this tie-in promotion, and in fact, it wasn’t even officially connected. The whole enterprise was McDonald’s trying to bandwagon on the show’s massive popularity with a publicity stunt.

This is probably all a little bewildering, especially if you don’t live in online fandom communities, so here’s a little context: the show’s about this mad scientist, Rick Sanchez, who goes on crazy adventures across space and time with his grandson, Morty. Except Rick is a nihilistic sociopath with no regard for who he hurts, and is explicitly acting outside the best interests of literally everyone in his life. And the weird Mulan sauce thing? That, Rick insists, is his fundamental motive: he just wants that damn sauce.

The point of the joke isn’t that the sauce is particularly good. The sauce is a throwaway; the point is that nothing matters, so why wouldn’t Rick’s entire goal, the reason he has hurt and killed so many people, held his grandson hostage, demolished so many lives, is literally nothing. Nothing matters, so why not go all out for the dumb things you want? Why not act in disgusting, cruel self-serving ways – all over a Disney tie-in dipping sauce?

It’s significant, then, that Rick & Morty’s fanbase seems to have taken that lesson to heart, and proceeded to spend this last Saturday looking for all the world exactly as petty, nasty, and shortsighted as Rick Sanchez, the man they for some reason aspire to be. Which raises a very important question: if your fans are terrible, what does that say about your brand?

I know this isn’t a question anyone is eager to answer; it’s happening in brand and fandom communities everywhere; everything from the massive GamerGate affair in 2014 to even things as simple as vegans being perceived as overly pushy or smug, toxic fan communities can be a massive ongoing PR headache – that then suddenly turn into a giant, explosive problem. There’s nothing good about a public conversation on your show or product that pivots, not on the product itself, but on the troubling community that has coalesced around it.

We’re talking about a fandom that took it upon itself to harass and torment the show’s female writers, prompting a response from co-creator Dan Harmon.

It ultimately has nothing to do with the show or product itself; sure, Rick & Morty has cruelty built into it, but even a show as pure and joyous and kind as Steven Universe has its share of toxic fans, famously bullying a fan artist off of Twitter in 2015 en masse. In the first example, the toxicity moves in one direction; in the second, it goes in another. The Steven Universe kerfuffle ultimately led to charges of pedophilia being baselessly lobbed at series creator Rebecca Sugar. At the end of it, nobody looked good; not even Steven Universe.

And significantly, this unfortunate and ridiculous Szechuan-gate has refocused conversation on the toxicity of its fans – and fandom intimately tied into the show’s brand. This is 2017, where shows don’t solely exist on television; they exist in fan-generated media, not the least of which are the ongoing conversations conducted for the whole world to see on Twitter and Reddit. Imagine being someone who has heard of the show but not watched it, and then seeing the ugliness of its fan community play out in such absurd and abusive ways.

It doesn’t make you think terribly highly of the show and extends far beyond the kind of fanbase gatekeeping that actually discourages people from getting into new media; we’re looking at behavior by any media property’s biggest asset: its dedicated, passionate brand ambassadors. And here, they’re actively making the show, in a very big-picture way, look bad.

There’s no playbook to manage this; media franchise after media franchise, medium after medium, have been hit with this situation in recent years, and nobody has much of an idea of what to do. There’s no way the show’s producers can ever claim to be able to control the actions of its fans, and they certainly shouldn’t be asked to compromise their art; and as the blowup over at Steven Universe showed, toxic people are going to be toxic wherever they are. There’s simply no way to avoid it.

But in terms of public relations, as HuffPost’s resident PR expert, I have a few ideas on containing the fire.

The first, which has already happened to an extent, is that the showrunners need to disavow these fans. It must be made very clear that these actions are not consonant with what they want, with what they are trying to achieve, and don’t represent people understanding the show. That it should go without saying that liking a piece of media – a show, a movie, a franchise, a comic book – doesn’t entitle anyone to petty, abusive behavior.

The second, which notably hasn’t happened, is that there needs to be a public acceptance of the fact that fan communities do represent the shows they love, and that needs to be countered with positive, engaging, and officially-branded fan community events. Counter the toxicity, instead of just talking it down. Spread enthusiasm instead of cynicism. Don’t just bandage over one incident; get in front of the next one.

That’s especially true for a show like Rick & Morty, which has such a dark heart it’s easy for a certain kind of person to misconstrue the point and be validated by it. Right now, Adult Swim, Harmon, and Roiland need to be looking at why that is and how they can actively counter it in the future, or they risk letting their show – their intelligent, risky, powerful show – into little more than a school for petty, nihilistic young men in demonstrating their superiority over the rabble. That may be Rick Sanchez’s philosophy – but it cannot be the show’s.

If it is, it doesn’t matter how many statements they put out.

The problem will only grow worse.

Originally published at HuffPost.