3 communication lessons from the story of the onions that were too hot for Facebook

Have you heard the one about the onions that were too sexy for Facebook?

As weird as that introduction sounds, it is not the start of a joke.

This is instead the story of a social media post that propelled a small company to an audience of millions and generated coverage across the world.

The story began with the Gaze Seed Company trying to post an innocent advert for walla walla onion seeds on Facebook.

The advert had intended to show the onions in a wicker basket with some sliced ones on the side.

But it was rejected for being “overtly sexualised”.

Jackson McLean, the store manager at the company based in Newfoundland, Canada, figured out that the round shape of the vegetables may have been mistaken for something lewder.

He posted about the refusal on the company’s Facebook page and the story was picked up by the mainstream media.

Why some onions were too sexy for Facebook BBC News

Facebook blocked an ad for onions for being 'overtly sexual' Today

TOO A-PEEL-ING Facebook banned a photo of some onions for being too ‘SEXY’ The Sun

This St. John's seed company's onions are too sexy for Facebook CBC

As well as these print stories, there has also been broadcast media coverage and it even featured on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

Impressive coverage and a great story, but why are we highlighting it to you?

Well, because it is a great example of something we often discuss during our media training courses.

When we look at what makes something newsworthy, we use the acronym TRUTH. It stands for Timely, Relevant, Unusual, Trouble and Human.

And the sexy onion story certainly ticks the unusual box.

The unusual element can be the difference between having something which is important to your organisation and something which is newsworthy and picked up by the media. It is also something which is often missing.

Of course, it is not always going to be as obvious as onions showing a bit too much skin on social media.

But perhaps the story your spokesperson is trying to tell is the first, the biggest, or even smallestEncourage your spokespeople, and other people in the organisation, to think about what would surprise an audience and make them sit-up and take note.

To support this point, I heard a presenter on Sky News recently use the old saying that “the best stories are the ones you couldn’t possibly make up.”

The other important point here – and it is something we have touched on in this media training blog before – is that despite all the consequences and implications of the covid pandemic, there remains a huge appetite for stories that offer an escape from that doom and gloom.

We still want to hear about the inspirational, the positive, the heart-warming, the feel-good and the unexpected.  

The Daily Telegraph, for example, has a dedicated ‘good news’ section and The Mirror has a ‘feel-good’ one. Additionally, Instagram, accounts dedicated to good news like @TanksGoodNews and @GoodNews_Movement have seen huge growth in followers.

For organisations, this is a reminder that there remains an opportunity to generate significant coverage. Whether it is for something unusual like the onions, or something that shows how your people have gone over and above the call of duty and shown great kindness, journalists are looking for stories other than Covid.

The downside is that these stories can easily be missed. The onion story would have probably gone untold if the company had not posted about it. And it can be really difficult for comms and media teams to be across everything that goes on in a large organisation.

That’s why it is crucial that people throughout an organisation have an understanding of what the media is looking for in a story

Find out more about how our  20-minute online course on story-identification could boost your organisation’s positive coverage.

The other lesson from these sexually provocative onions comes from the way Facebook handled the story about its artificial intelligence having a dirty mind.

We’ve been critical of how it has responded to being in the media spotlight in previous editions of this media training blog.

But here it judged its response well, using a touch of humour that set well with the tone of the story.

Meg Sinclair, Facebook Canada’s head of communications, said: "We use automated technology to keep nudity off our apps, but sometimes it doesn’t know a walla walla onion from a, well, you know.

"We restored the ad and are sorry for the business’ trouble.”

But ultimately, the real winners here are the seed company.

The extensive coverage resulted in a big boost for the firm – far greater than the advert would have achieved - with the onion seeds flying off the shelves.

"We've sold more in the last three days than in the last five years," Mr McLean has been quoted as saying.

And the seeds are now apparently listed under ‘sexy onions’ on the company website – not a sentence I ever thought I’d have to write.


About to face the media? Get your media interview homework off to the best start by downloading your copy of our free media interview preparation eBook.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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