Hot Topic Ventures into Memes
Last week, American retail chain Hot Topic introduced a new t-shirt design featuring Rageguy, a stick figure character from the popular internet cartoons that had its beginning on 4chan in late 2008. Titled “FU Meme Guy T-shirt” and categorized under “Pop Culture” section, Hot Topic’s open venture into internet memes infuriated many on 4chan and Reddit who felt their communal joke had been hijacked by corporate marketers. Some called for a boycott, while others began planning for a strike back.
Internet Strikes Back
Then came Operation: Black Rage, an Anonymous-led smear campaign seeking to taint Hot Topic’s brand image by instructing internet users to create and proliferate racist versions of the original Rageguy comics. Several black propaganda tactics were employed in the process, such as spreading disinformation and baiting news media with sensationalism.
The company’s initial response came with a white flag, announcing that Rageguy t-shirt will be discontinued from sales in the stores after one week. But only hours later, they reverted their decision to stop selling the shirt, citing news sources and other online merchandise sites with similar t-shirt designs in stock. In fact, there are dozens of Rageguy-related merchandises already available on online retail sites like Zazzle and a number of other internet humor sites (not to forget Know Your Meme’s very own Rageguy shirt available in the store).
Assimilators Gonna Assimilate, Saboteurs Gonna Sabotage
Since its foundation in the late 80s, Hot Topic has established itself as a bastion of image consumerism, capturing snapshots of underground subcultures and codifying them into mass fashion, all the while crafting its brand image as permanently anti-mainstream and non-conformist.
Yes, perhaps there’s nothing like racism that will bring down a company’s public image overnight, if that was truly the case. But clearly, the goal of Operation: Black Rage was misdirected at mudslinging their brand name, which is something that Hot Topic has carefully worked on for two decades, rather than focusing the heat on its contentious decision to silently co-opt internet culture with little respect for the original authors. In short, racism was a poor choice of weapon.
Regardless, Operation: Black Rage was a novel kind of protest against exploitation of an emerging culture. It served as a waking reminder for the future purveyors that images of internet memes may not be tamed as easily as those found on TV screen or cinema, so long as the meaning behind each image remains in the hands of …well, really pissed off authors who won’t have it any other way.