The Yellow Tail affair

Written by Steve Fairchild on .

Social media can be good for agriculture, but it will cut both ways

A couple months ago Yellow Tail, an Australian wine retailer, announced it would donate $100,000 to the Humane Society of the United States.

Don’t be confused. The HSUS isn’t connected to your local animal shelter. It is a big-budget animal rights pressure group. In fact, HSUS leaders have suggested that the ultimate goal of the group’s foray into animal welfare is to make sure the U.S. livestock industry is put out of business.

When word got out that Yellow Tail would help fund such an organization, you can well imagine the reaction among the farming community. Or, you might have missed it.  Maybe you’re not a member of the social media Web site Facebook. Maybe you don’t use Twitter, the messaging service that allows you to “tweet” all of your followers in 140-character blurts.
If you’re not participating in these Web phenomena, you missed most of the showdown.

The Yellow Tail donation was too much for a few aggies. They began to clear their throat across the interwebs.
A Facebook group called Yellow Fail was created. Online protests ensued. Yellow Tail’s Facebook fan page was flooded with commenters who said they’d stop buying the wine, and the bottles of Yellow Tail plonk they already owned would go down the toilet. In fact, photos of that very act were posted. Troy Hadrick, a blogger and Great Plains cattle producer posted a YouTube video of himself pouring a bottle of Yellow Tail chardonnay on the snowy South Dakota ground at chore time. Twitter was full of tweets and bleats directing the willing to boycott Yellow Tail.

These online acts of public protest spread through an interconnected tangle of work-a-day agriculturists from farmers to editors to public relations folks and sellers of equipment and insurance. It was a rapidly moving lesson about modern communications and the space that social media now fills in our daily news consumption. From the first few individually inspired remonstrations of Yellow Tail grew a full-blown media event. Mainstream print publications picked up the news. It turned into what media gurus call a viral campaign—something that starts small and ends big, spreading on its own.

Must have been an interesting time to be an Aussie winemaker. Surely, they’d just taken a look at the demographic study the marketing firm turned in. It said that U.S. wine buyers were mostly women who loved their pets. So why not donate to an organization that fits that bill? They didn’t know that the Humane Society of the United States isn’t in the puppy saving business, but is glad to hide in the confusion its name creates. Nor did the report show that Yellow Tail had been popular among cheapskate Midwesterners (read: farmers).

In full disclosure, I should say that until recently I was a buyer of Yellow Tail shiraz. I was also among the hundreds who offered opinions on Yellow Tail’s Facebook page. And I’m a social media schizophrenic.

Facebook is the coffee shop, the local bar, a post-service church sidewalk, the grocery-store bulletin board; it’s a crazy aunt’s chain letter and running into an old friend at Wal-Mart. You’ll learn a few things from Facebook that you’re glad to know, and much more that you’re not. You’ll learn that people like lame online games. Trust me on that one.

Like all social media, Facebook and Twitter roar with the noise of millions barking about nothing. What makes the sites powerful is that you can filter the noise. You can be among your tribe and hear what you want to hear. You can be a community organizer. You can join like-minded people to point collective venom. The ag community that arose against the Yellow Tail donation refrained from venom, but made its point. Yellow Tail pulled the donation.

While there was a little back patting after the fact, everyone in agriculture should understand that the Yellow Tail campaign was a rearguard skirmish in the enviro-carbon-compassion complex’s siege of agriculture. What it showed us is that through social media there is finally a way for farmers and farm interests to coalesce in the modern real-time news cycle. What it didn’t show is that we are still an infinitesimal section of the population. In fact, it probably inflated our sense of accomplishment. For every Yellow Tail we turn, there is an Oprah against beef. And for every HSUS we expose, there are a thousand HSUS adherents making noise on Facebook that can itself become a campaign against farming.

Social media has become a powerful tool for opinion shaping and grass-roots organization. It’s nice to see aggies grasp that. They should be prepared for the same tools they used to change minds at Yellow Tail to be used against agriculture.

When a sword has two edges, it’s best to work on your foreswing.