Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US nine months ago, a number of bizarre things that I never thought I’d see have happened. For example, I never thought I’d see a President of the United States promote unproven treatments for a deadly viral illness, as President Trump did with hydroxychloroquine. (Dr. Mehmet Oz and other medical grifters promoting unproven treatments, sure, but the President of the United States? Well, I guess I did forget momentarily who our President was.) Nor did I ever think I’d see a President say such incredibly stupid things about potential treatments for such a disease, including using light and disinfectants internally to fight the coronavirus. Don’t get me wrong, though. Given my background, certainly, I did expect there to be COVID-19 conspiracy theories and wasn’t particularly surprised to see the antivaccine movement team up so quickly with COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and cranks given their shared world view viewing the same groups as villains hiding “The Truth” from you—yes, you!—but even I was a bit taken aback at how vociferously antimask ideology became a thing even though masks do work (COVID-19 denier misinterpretations of studies notwithstanding) to slow the spread of COVID-19. Perhaps the strangest thing, though, that happened during the pandemic is the rise of the most unexpected source of reason, science, and information to fight disinformation. I’m referring to the Twitter feed of a frozen meat company called Steak-umm.
To give you an idea what I mean, here’s the Twitter thread pinned to the top of Steak-umm’s Twitter profile:
I love how whoever’s running the Steak-umm Twitter feed frequently concludes the company’s Tweets with “steak-umm bless”. In any event, notice the date on this Twitter thread: April 6, 2020. This was early in the pandemic. Notice how what Steak-umm is saying could easily be something found in a Science-Based Medicine post about how to evaluate medical information, science, and misinformation. Notice the incredible level of self-awareness in the Tweet pointing out how Steak-umm knows its Twitter feed’s purpose is to sell its product and its ads might misdirect to generate sales, while pivoting to urge people to “make informed decisions to the best of your ability and don’t let anecdotes dictate your worldview”.
Certainly, I didn’t fail to notice the irony of finding myself, as someone who’s dedicated much of his life and career to promoting science-based medicine (SBM) and combatting medical misinformation and disinformation, be it cancer quackery, fear mongering about genetically modified organisms, antivaccine pseudoscience, or other medical conspiracy theories, all while, when I deem it appropriate and imperative, also taking on the poor evidence base for a number of “conventional” medical treatments, helping to amplify the message promoted by a frozen meat company on its Twitter feed, just because the message jibes with the message I’m trying to promote. Oh, well, if this post helps Steak-umm sell more frozen meat, so be it. Even so, in the interests of full disclosure, several weeks ago Steak-umm sent me some Steak-umm swag (a hat, some coupons, a facemask) because of my interactions on Twitter, but that was only after many weeks of positive interactions and with the explicit statement that I was under no obligation to write about Steak-umm. No doubt some quack or antivaxxer will accuse me of being a shill for big frozen meat. Such is the strangeness of the times we live in.
Ever since I first noticed Steak-umm’s rather…unusual…approach to brand promotion through Tweeting messages encouraging skepticism and critical thinking, particularly about the hysteria and dubious claims being made about the COVID-19 pandemic, several months ago, I was always a bit curious about how the company’s social media arm decided on this approach and whether it was successful. Certainly, it struck me as successful from the standpoint of promoting critical thinking about COVID-19, but how could such an approach also be effective advertising? Sure, Steak-umm got lots of free publicity, and, sure, it now has nearly 170K Twitter followers, but how was it used to sell frozen meat? In other words, how did Steak-umm do well by doing good?
I can’t believe I missed this article the first time it came around, but Ekaterina Bogomoletc at North Carolina State University and Nicole Lee at Arizona State University looked at this question in an article in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication entitled “Frozen Meat Against COVID-19 Misinformation: An Analysis of Steak-Umm and Positive Expectancy Violations“. Reading the article also let me learn a bit about expectancy violation theory.
Basically, expectancy violation is a theory in communications that tries to explain the behavior of human beings while interacting. This article sums it up rather succinctly:
Expectancy violation theory emphasizes on an individual perception of the interaction in a particular situation. People while communicating will create an expectation of how the other will react. Violation to this expectation can cause to [sic] a perception that will be positive or negative. People behave differently according to the cultural values they grow up in and this influences the reaction of the people considerably.
Expectancy violation theory also is dependent on the personal space. The personal space is the boundary we keep and freedom is given to the people whom we are close with. Particular personal space is expected from the people whom they interact with according to the relationship they have with them. The theory explains that people tends [sic] to protect the personal space when they experience a violation in the expected behaviour.
You can see how Steak-umm’s Twitter feed would violate people’s expectations, albeit in a positive manner. We expect corporate social media to be primarily advertising, nothing more. However, in this case, we see a company’s social media arm being used to promote critical thinking and science about a deadly pandemic, which is definitely not something I would have expected to see.
Bogomoletc and Lee observe about the thread above that I quoted:
This thread received thousands of reposts and earned Steak-umm the titles “voice of reason” (Masnik, 2020) and “beacon of truth” (Zafarris, 2020) in the media. Within the next week, Steak-umm thanked its followers for amplifying its messages and shared five more threads addressing science communication, misinformation, and critical thinking. Meanwhile, the company demonstrated self-awareness by acknowledging its bizarre new role, apologizing for anthropomorphizing the brand and admitting that its ultimate goal was to sell its products (Masnik, 2020).
Here are examples of Steak-umm’s self-awareness:
And, there was another thread:
Again, there’s the “steak-umm bless,” which is often how Steak-umm signals its readers that a thread is finished. Steak-umm has also been raising money for Feeding America, to which the brand donated $25,000 in April.
These are just a few examples from over seven months ago. Here’s one from Friday:
Which led to this response, among others:
I was basically asking the same question.
The authors ask a rather obvious question, noting first that “authenticity” in communication can be major drivers of success, but also noting how authenticity alone is not enough to explain the rather odd success of Steak-umm’s strategy, asking, rather pointedly, “If the brand had been communicating authentically for several years, why did we see such a spike in followers now?” Based on expectancy violation theory, the authors ask: “What themes are reflected in consumer tweets about Steak-umm and to what extent do reactions reflect positive expectancy violations?”
To answer this question, the authors conducted a thematic analysis of Tweets replying or mentioning Steak-umm from April 1 to 14, 2020, limiting them to US Twitter users posting in English. (It’s at this point that I must mention that I strongly suspect some of my own Tweets from back then are likely to have been included in this analysis, because I did respond to or quote-Tweet Steak-umm at least a few times during that period.) Doing that analysis according to Smith’s five step process for developing and collapsing themes, the most prominent themes found included praise, leadership, surprise, and product mentions.
I won’t rehash the praise that much, other than to mention that, unsurprisingly, there were indeed numerous Tweets praising Steak-umm for its Tweets about how to evaluate COVID-19 information and misinformation, how to evaluate self-proclaimed “experts” on social media writing about the pandemic, COVID-19 epidemiology, and potential treatments. Mine were among them, and many of them went something like this:
Next up was leadership:
Another related theme was leadership. This theme was seen in several posts comparing its communication to that of President Trump. For example, one post said, “When you get more responsible information from a frozen meat than from the President of the United States …” (Toots the Red, 2020). It was also seen in posts saying Steak-umm, or the person behind the posts, is a hero, should run for president, or be nominated as vice president by presidential candidate Joe Biden. Examples included, “Umm, thank you, @steak_umm, for your sound reasoning. Exceptional read and quite right. Wanna run for President?” (Rau, 2020), and “Can we drop Biden and choose the @steak_umm intern instead?” (Wilson, 2020).
You get the idea. Amusingly, there was this response:
Indeed. It’s incredibly unlikely, of course, but a nice fantasy to have.
Obviously, to me, the big theme was surprise—pleasant surprise, but surprise nonetheless:
Surprise, confusion, and observations about the strangeness of 2020 were also prevalent. This came in the form of commenting on how it is odd that a frozen meat company is taking on this role and how that is a reflection of the strange reality of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Exemplar posts included, “Can’t believe I’m retweeting @steak_umm but these are strange times we’re living in” (Woods, 2020), and “@steak_umm being the voice of reason is peak 2020” (Jamie Plus a 6 Foot Radius of Empty Space, 2020).
You know, I had always wondered how one cites a Tweet in an academic paper. Now I know. In any case, these are indeed strange times we’re living in, and that’s why I subtitled this post “The Strange Case of Steak-umm”.
Consistent with Steak-umm’s Twitter feed’s main purpose, which is to sell frozen meat, there were also posts that explicitly helped to sell Steak-umm product:
Most immediately related to company success were posts that endorsed Steak-umm products or explicitly stated purchase intentions. For instance, “The only way I can thank Steak-umm for the truth bombs is to buy some Steak-umm, so I’ll make some cheesesteaks soon, yo” (Valholla, 2020). Some of these tweets reflected nostalgia for the brand and referred to childhood or college. One such tweet said, “I haven’t had @steak_umm since I was a wee lass but I’m definitely getting some next grocery trip because I’m in love with their social media presence right now” (Liliana, 2020).
Again, this just goes to show that it is possible to do well by doing good, and this sort of brand message amplification was, no doubt, part of what Steak-umm’s social media team had hoped to accomplish when it started its campaign.
On the other hand, although Bogomoletc and Lee didn’t mention it, I can’t help but note that not all the responses to its Tweets have been positive. For example:
Haters aside, Bogomoletc and Lee come up with some takeaways from this campaign:
This case study provides several takeaways for strategic and technical communicators. First, the study demonstrates that companies should not be afraid to surprise their publics and show a human side. Showing humanity might be especially relevant for communicating complex matters such as misinformation or other science communication topics (Steiner, 1999). In this case, that involved a professional communicator not only communicating complex information but also providing followers insight into the technical communication process in a way for which communication practitioners and scholars are uniquely situated.
Second, previous authentic communication demonstrating the commitment of a company to its values might be a foundation for ensuring positive outcomes of expectancy violation. This takeaway demonstrates that “values [are] important in our organizations of classrooms, workplaces, and situations beyond these settings in which texts are used to establish or change policies and priorities” (Rude, 2009, p. 182). Shared values mediated through Steak-umm’s texts were clearly more important for the brand’s stakeholders than was the established decorum that dictates certain behavioral norms for organizations in a crisis situation.
It really is saying something that one of the most effective voices on Twitter against COVID-19 misinformation is the Twitter account of a frozen meat company. Surprise, indeed. As much as I might have predicted many of the things that have happened during the pandemic that I discussed at the beginning of this post, I never would have predicted that a frozen meat company would come to occupy such a prominent position in the war against COVID-19 misinformation.
Advertisers took note, too, as this AdAge article from April demonstrates. It turns out that the voice behind Steak-umm’s social media is a man named Nathan Allebach, who describes himself in his Twitter bio as “covering internet culture wars, advertising, and conspiracy theories”. Allebach was brought into the company for this express purpose:
The man behind the curtain is Nathan Allebach, a social media manager at Allebach Communications. He and his team were brought into the Steak-umm family in 2015 with the express mission of reaching the media-savvy millennial audience and a single directive: innovate.
That innovation — which had already gained recognition in 2018 after pensive tweets waxing about millennial despondency — came to fruition in early April.
In other words, this isn’t the first time that the Steak-umm Twitter feed has achieved notoriety for a rather Zen-like (or, some would say, stoner-like) bit of Twitter artistry:
You can see from this thread from two years ago many of the same elements in Steak-umm’s Twitter threads about COVID-19, critical thinking, and science in 2020. There’s the self-deprecating, almost absurdist nature of the Tweets. Before the Tweets about Millennials, Steak-umm disrupted Twitter with a campaign to be “verified” by Twitter, the process that leads to those little checkmarks by the names of people on Twitter accounts, considered a badge of legitimacy that the social media company grants to company brands, journalists and famous people in the form of a blue check mark on their profile.
Basically, the 2020 Steak-umm Twitter campaign promoting critical thinking, particularly about COVID-19, is the longest and most sustained effort I’ve seen from the company. It’s gone on since early April and, as I showed above, is still ongoing. That being said, I never forget that this is an advertising campaign. It is undoubtedly an unconventional and innovative ad campaign that seeks to tie a brand to a societally useful and beneficial thing: Promoting skepticism and critical thinking about not just COVID-19, but everything.
Still, even while doing that, Steak-umm tells us that that’s what it’s doing. Indeed, it’s always been telling us that that’s what it’s doing. For example, later in April, Steak-umm opined:
That’s so meta, and I couldn’t have said it better myself, even at the risk of some out there labeling me a shill for big frozen meat. I would even say that you should consume what Orac lays down here at Respectful Insolence with skepticism as well. I do my damnedest to stick to the science, but everyone has biases, being human. Unlike the fictional character whose name I chose as my ‘nym and alter-ego, I’m not damned near omniscient. I am, also, not trying to sell you anything other than SBM, and I’m not charging anything for what I’m selling other than a bit of your time. Heck, I even pay all the hosting charges for this blog out of my own pocket as an expense for my hobby!