Popular Melbourne bike shop Total Rush has been condemned on social media for using topless women as part of its brand re-launch promotion last week.
The women were dressed in nothing but underpants and high heels and appeared at an event attended by 130 people at the brand’s Richmond store, where they were covered in bright pink body paint.
The incident could have gone unnoticed, but Total Rush posted an image to Twitter the following morning (which has since been removed) of one of the models, causing a storm of social media backlash.
The PR nightmare didn’t end there. By the afternoon it emerged the store had started deleting comments, causing further outrage from critics.
The stunt caused a flurry of comments from a variety of people, including outspoken media personality Catherine Deveny.
Since Friday, the majority of comments regarding the incident have been deleted from Facebook although some still remain.
Following the incident, Total Rush, which is known for promoting women’s cycling, posted a statement online saying the topless women were “extremely tastefully executed and not sexually offensive”.
“At no stage did any of the guests object to their presence and none departed early or complained. In fact, the opposite was the case with comment made about the creative approach taken and many female guests requested that their photos be taken with the artists,” Total Rush founder Simon Coffin said.
But popular cycling blog Cycling Tips begs to differ, saying many who attended the event felt uncomfortable.
Coffin says it would have opted for a different promotion had they believed the use of body artists would offend.
The manager of digital research and analysis with social media advisory firm SR7, Anthony Mason, told Women’s Agenda sister publication SmartCompany how a brand responds on social media often becomes a second source of criticism.
“It is part of a common trend to see Total Rush move so quickly to disable some of the interactivity on their social media assets,” he says.
“In a time of crisis, social media presents an opportunity to be open and receptive, hence minimising this communication channel is counter to the public affairs aims of social media.”
Mason says this often occurs when social media assets are managed by marketing personnel.
“What can happen when comments are censored and two-way dialogue functionality is disabled is that a second-wave of criticism will follow the original story, as users become more incensed that a company is unwilling to discuss the issue,” he says.
“When it comes to businesses operating on social media, they need to be aware that social media is a highly politicised and issues-rich space and to be adequately prepared to address this with a crisis plan, should a company become a target of online criticism of this sort.”
In its statement, Coffin said the concept of topless body artists was inspired by similar promotions by other organisations.
“Such organisations include a major luxury car company and a breast cancer organisation, as well as many others,” Coffin said.
“Total Rush adopted the concept because of its successful use by other organisations and believing it to be an appropriate way to communicate our brand; the concept was strongly endorsed by our guests.”
Mason says the brand’s statement was strong and unapologetic, although it’s not always necessary for brands to apologise.
“Businesses should ideally be using their social media assets to disseminate any statements they have made, as Total Rush has, but best practice is to pro-actively search for relevant brand mentions and bring that statement to these audiences,” he says.
“Social media presents the opportunity to make better of a negative issue, but all too often it is used to make matters worse.”
In contrast to Total Rush, Woolworths was praised for its social media approach after a marketing blunder earlier this year.
The supermarket became the crux of a social media scandal when a photo of one of its billboards linking donuts with “fresh food” went viral.
However, the supermarket responded quickly to all commenters, did not delete posts, and announced it would remove the billboard, while explaining its decisions behind it.