The filmmakers behind the recently released children’s movie, Peter Rabbit, had a pretty good weekend. The film was number two at the box office, just behind Fifty Shades Freed. Then, as it often does, the other shoe dropped.
If you were a kid who begged your parents to take you to the movie, you likely laughed the way through Peter and his pals playing pranks on the annoying human characters in the film. However, if you were a member of the charity group, Kids with Food Allergies, you were not amused.
After the film’s release, the group posted a warning on social media telling parents with children who have allergies about a specific scene they thought could be hurtful or offensive. They also attempted to start a viral campaign with the hashtag “#boycottpeterrabbit.”
What set them off? A scene in the movie depicts Peter and his friends pelting “Mr. McGregor” with blackberries, a fruit he, apparently is highly allergic to. In the scene, the rabbits laugh and mock McGregor as he is forced to use an EpiPen to fend off a severe allergic reaction.
Now, surely, someone in a creative meeting thought about this, particularly given the rise in allergy cases among children, and the high-profile changes to many school lunch menus and other norms of student social life. Likely, the scene was considered and the concern discussed and dismissed, because the scene was depicted in a slapstick way common to many kids’ shows and movies over the years.
Sony Pictures alluded to this thinking even while wisely avoiding the, ‘we thought it would be okay because this kind of thing is done a lot,’ line of argument. Instead, Sony opted to release a statement admitting “food allergies are a serious issue…” that “should not be made light (of)…” even if portrayed “in a slapstick, cartoonish way.”
Now, that last bit does come perilously close to an excuse, rather than an apology. But Sony does have a point. This kind of thing was the constant plot of many cartoons today’s kids’ parents grew up watching. That kind of thinking certainly is not good enough for Kids with Food Allergies. The group fired back that the “joke” is “harmful” to the people they represent, and any jokes of this kind “encourage the public not to take the risk of allergic reactions seriously…”
And it wasn’t just one group… Kenneth Mendez, president of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, penned an open letter to Sony Studios suggesting the studio give him the opportunity to “educate” the company and the film’s cast about food allergies, asking as well that Sony “examine your portrayal of bullying in your films geared toward a young audience.”
Sony did not green light that request, at least not yet. They did release a statement assuring the public that the company “Sincerely regret(s) not being more aware and sensitive to this issue, and we truly apologize…”
While that statement hasn’t put a pin in the anger expressed by the various allergy groups and their supporters, it is a step in the right direction. This incident was just another example demonstrating the shift in power and influence of social media on marketing and PR decisions. The right group or brand with the right message can change the direction of a narrative with a single tweet or post.
Ronn Torossian is the CEO of 5W Public Relations