From #hotdebateguy to #brotherorange – “Human Flesh Search” and Takeaways for Brand Managers

I know you guys are all about Sanders now, but he wasn’t the only one who stole the thunder from the Republican debate. As he was gaining unexpected social media attention by live tweeting the debate, another hashtag was trending on twitter too. Some keen audience spotted a good looking young man sitting behind the moderator while the debate was broadcasted live, and soon hashtag #hotdebateguy and #mysterioushottie started trending as more and more people joined the discussion to comment on his good looks and mysterious identity.

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Because this is the Internet in 2015, his real identity was revealed within a matter of minutes. CNN soon confirmed the identity of the young man who became an overnight Internet sensation. Gregory Caruso, the son of real estate developer Rick Caruso, is a 24-year-old filmmaker living in LA. If you conduct a Google search on his name, there are already videos of his interview where he mentioned he is open to pursuing an acting career.

I am not sure how long Caruso will ride the wave of this sudden fame (although the skeptical part of me immediately pondered the likelihood of this being a planned PR stunt) , but either way, this is yet another case to demonstrate the power of social media and collective effort.

I believe at this point, all of us have heard of/experienced similar cases on identity revelation under collective effort over the Internet. In fact, this process is so frequently practiced in China that there is a special term for it: “Human Flesh Search”. Directly translated from the Chinese term:  ren rou sou suo yin qing  (human flesh search engine), the phrase is mostly used as verb nowadays to describe the collective effort to reveal someone’s identity. The practice, together with its name, first became known at around 2006, when a video documenting a woman brutally murdering a kitten by stomping on it with her stilettos circulated widely over the Internet. Angry netizens soon turned their rage and empathy into practical inquiries on identifying this woman and tracking her down. Dedicated discussion threads started to appear on major online forums and chatroom, where people would publish and exchange information on any lead they could find about her. Eventually, traditional media picked up the story and the nation-wide exposure led to a tip from a woman who knows the perpetrator in the video. The “kitten-killer” and the cameraman’s names, phone numbers and workplace information were published online. They lost their government jobs, life-long pension and eventually had to leave their hometown and start a life elsewhere.

The “victory” of such vigilantism set precedence of human flesh search in China and the practice was then repeated as a means to pursue justice. As the New York Times puts it, “Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath. The goal is to get the targets of a search fired from their jobs, shamed in front of their neighbors, ran out of town. It’s crowd-sourced detective work, pursued online — with offline results.”  During the years to follow, Internet users in China have exposed corrupting government officials, humiliated celebrities cheating on their spouses and returned abducted babies to their parents. As people grew wary of the original cause of such practice, they also started to focus their interest on some rather bizarre cases- they brought national attention to a good looking and somewhat “stylish” homeless man, gave him a fashion makeover and opportunity to star in clothing commercials. They have also helped a random white collar guy in Beijing to track down a girl who he considered a potential soulmate, because she was reading Fountain Head on Line 10 and seemed to be also an Ayn Rand fan.

As social media platforms developed and evolved, information flow fastened as Internet penetration rate increased. People became more and more efficient in pinpointing location and identity. Initially, it took people six days to track down the kitten-killer. Some of the recent human flesh search cases have proven that not only can the search be done within hours, but also across continents. The craziest example of this happen not too long ago, when a guy named Matt Stopera started seeing random photos appear in his iCloud photo stream, many of them featuring an asian man and orange trees. Soon realizing someone in China is now using his stolen iPhone, the Buzzfeed editor posted about this incident on Twitter announcing the closing of his case. What he didn’t expect, was that this was just the beginning of a crazy journey to becoming a celebrity in China and harvesting an international friendship. ( Read the whole story here, if you haven’t already. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this crazy story. )

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Similar examples go on and on, and this is by no means a China-only phenomenon ( Remember Alex from Target and Jen Sterger? ). There are a few  takeaways for social media /brand managers universally:

  1. Use “human flesh search” phenomenon to your advantage.

With a good understanding of consumer motivations and psychology, brands can plan and predict the formation of such collective effort , take advantage of the exposure and use it as a means of promotion. A few years ago, a cellphone brand in China implanted their brand into a Weibo posting where a guy was enlisting the “almighty Internet” to help him find a girl he saw in a cafe ( which later became popular too) but was too shy to speak to. The clues he revealed included the time, date, name of the cafe and the model number of the cellphone that girl was taking selfies with. Although the whole thing was later revealed to be a pure marketing tactic, the brand was still perceived positively as people started a new round of discussion where they appraised the clever idea. However, there is a fine line between a perfectly executed marketing stunt and abuse of people’s goodwill. Managers need to be aware that as more and more people become aware of such marketing tactic, the idea loses its appeal and effectiveness.

Even without the confidence or experience to plan such event, brands can still ride the wave of a trending search when opportunity calls. In the “Orange Brother” case above, you can see from the Buzzfeed article that local brands wasted no time with product placement and finding the perfect endorsement. Bravos for the small village businessmen. In the “Alex from Target ” case, after the topic trended for a while, Target broke their silence, Tweeted ” We heart Alex, too” using the same hashtag.

   2 . Mind negative associations and get your PR team ready.

Not all trendy waves are worth riding. Sometimes a “human flesh search” sensation can bring negative association to your brand as well. When it happens, the PR team better to ready for a quick reaction. Not too long ago a self-filmed sex video went viral on the Chinese Internet. In the video, a young couple filmed themselves having sex in the fitting room of a very popular Uniqlo location in Beijing. The human flesh search to identify the couple also brought inevitable attention to Uniqlo, although that was not necessarily the publicity they wanted. The company quickly responded in a statement: “We would like to remind the public to uphold social morality and use our fitting rooms in a correct and proper way.” Although  in this case, the particular incident didn’t seem to add any positive or negative impact to the brand, and was likely to be forgotten fairly quickly, things could get a lot worse if a brand somehow gets associated with unethical conduct or illegal activities. Incidents like this might be hard to predict, but the PR team should develop a protocol for such situations.

  1. Align all social media efforts with your marketing strategy. 

Whether a brand decides to proactively deploy this tactic or passively ride its wave, it needs to make sure each social media move falls under the overall social media / marketing strategy. Many brands jump on the “newsjacking” wagon as an operational habit to “stay relevant”, that they stopped thinking about the long-term benefit or strategic value-add to the brand’s customer perception. To think of smart copies and create relevant posts in a timely fashion can be a demanding task for the social media team, but if the brand is among countless others that do the same, that extra value might not justify the investment in these resources – brands might be better off creating authentic marketing campaigns that can stand alone and last a lot longer than the hashtags they are riding.

4. Mind legal and ethical boundaries. 

Although most of the “human flesh search”s are done out of goodwill (one form or another) , the moral debate surrounding such practice never stopped. The lack of legal regulation in this area provided opportunities for severe privacy abuse, and there have been cases where stalkers exploited people’s kindness to track down their targets who have purposely gone under hiding. Brand managers should be highly vigilant about potential ethical impact when associating the brands to such activities.

5 comments

  1. Like what Bernie Sanders was able to do with stealing the show from the GOP candidates on Twitter, this inadvertent placement of Gregory Caruso and the viral reaction about him indicates just how little people took the GOP Debate seriously. All night long, instead of meaningful tweets regarding policy considerations and stances from the candidates, the GOP Debate backfired yet again and turned into the biggest laughing stock the Twitter world has ever seen. Instead of a debate for the chance to run for the highest position in the land, the GOP candidates are so disrespected and looked down upon by much of the internet community that candidates not even on the stage, and unidentified random individuals in the crowd made a bigger impact. If any of these candidates have any hope to beat Clinton, Sanders, or Biden, the GOP needs to consolidate the number of candidates and force the debates to be taken seriously on Social Media. Instead, we’ll be looking forward to another year of debate drinking game pictures on Facebook, trending hashtags of Democratic candidates, and an election process that no one will possibly take seriously. To do this, this GOP can quite easily take the four tips you have outlined in your blog post, with numbers two and four being the most important and relevant, considering the fact that candidates like Donald Trump, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson are not afraid to speak their minds.

    1. Hi Ben, thanks for your reply. As under-informed as I am about American politics ( or just politics in general actually ), I did notice the difference in different administrations / parties’ social media efforts and how they can enhance the mass audience’s perception on their campaigns and leadership. As far as I see it, Obama administration does a great job staying relevant on social media, and the use of humor and empathy helped to bring people’s attention to some really serious issues. Another example would be the current Chinese president, Xi Jinping. Described as “China’s first social media president”, he gained great amount of popularity as a leader, as well as awareness and support on his anti-corruption campaign with his frequent yet humble social media appearances as ” the man of the people” . ( read more about Xi and his social media presence here: http://thediplomat.com/2014/03/xi-jinping-and-social-media-harnessing-the-peoples-voice/ ) . I would be interested to see how the current presidential candidates further leverage social media platforms as a means to draw attention to social agendas they would like to push, and whether people can start to take certain parties seriously.

  2. Very interesting follow-up stories to support the #hotdebateguy story, Jennie. I couldn’t help but think about how we use these one-off incidences to track down kitten-killers and yet we allow Yik Yak, Ashley Madison and other platforms to exist to facilitate immoral behavior such as cheating and cyberbullying. It’s almost like we are so focused on the up to the minute news that we overlook longstanding issues with daily impact. It’s great that people are being held accountable for terrible acts that they are willing to post, but I feel as though our time is better served on social networks that affect more lives beyond one person’s viral video. Thanks for bringing up this story!

    1. Hi Matt,

      I thought of exactly the same thing. It’s very hard to predict what triggers the mass’ interest nowadays. When Cecil the lion became a trending topic some skeptical voices were saying that although the cruelty in this case did call for criticism, human beings die in more cruel manner every day and most do not receive equal attention. I guess this reflect the part of human nature that is hard to change. At the same time, this will require those who wish to initiate campaigns online to be more creative / make a more compelling case if they were to receive the response they want.

  3. Very nice post (it was so meaty, there probably could have been enough for two posts in here). The downside, of course, is what happens when the “crowd” gets it wrong, as was the case when the same thing happened in the Boston Marathon Bombing. There’s no escaping, however, that we’ve moved to a very visible society where you are never completely unidentifiable.

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