What happens when your brand is co-opted by extremists?

Fringe groups have glommed onto brands like Pit Viper, Dr. Martens, and Fred Perry. Can a brand reclaim its identity from unwanted customers?

The Pit Viper headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a shrine to carefree, bro-tastic vibes.

What happens when your brand is co-opted by extremists?

Inside the offices of the ’90s-themed sunglasses company, the walls are adorned with pictures of dogs, grandmas, and skiers all wearing brightly colored shades. The production basement is full of neon windbreakers and other whimsical photoshoot props.

It’s all in line with Pit Viper’s mission statement: “To help people not take life so seriously.” 

But on a recent summer afternoon, Spencer Harkins, the company’s VP of brand, walked out of a conference room expressing exasperation.

“I’m talking about the alt-right guys again,” he said.

Top: Pit Viper HQ main offices; Bottom: Production studio and prop closet (Selina Lee / The Hustle)

In the last 19 months, Pit Viper has endured numerous associations with fringe right-wing influencers. The company’s products have been sported by a Jan. 6 insurrectionist and a far-right livestreamer who leads a hate group called the “groyper army” to name a few.

The more the company has tried to denounce its associations to these influencers and their ideologies, the more these figures seem to endorse their product. 

This phenomenon — when a brand is unwillingly co-opted by fringe groups to advance their message –—is known as hatejacking. Hatejacking has become increasingly common as extremist politics have crept into the mainstream, interfering with brands aiming to please broad audiences.    

Most of the time, the fringe group picks its targets at random. There are no clear answers for why it happens and to whom. Just as confusingly, there’s no surefire strategy for silencing the fringe groups.

Companies like Pit Viper face a daunting challenge: When a fringe group takes over your brand, can you ever get it back? 

How brand takeovers came to the US

Long before young extremists sported ’90s-style sunglasses from Pit Viper, they wore Dr. Martens

The affordable worker boots, introduced in the 1960s, were immensely popular among working-class youths in Europe who called themselves skinheads. By the 1980s, many skinhead subcultures had gravitated toward white supremacist ideologies, using the boots to self-identify. 

Another brand racist skinheads picked up was Fred Perry. Its polo shirts initially represented a subversion of the upper class, given the working-class roots of Perry, the company’s namesake — but the shirts’ meaning became warped through association with their group.

The co-optation of the brands was partly out of necessity. Many European countries banned traditional symbols of hate, such as the swastika, and Dr. Martens gave the hate groups a mainstream codifier. 

Flash forward to today in the US: Hate groups have declined the last few years, but, as mainstream political movements have been more accepting of fringe attitudes, images and propaganda associated with these groups are on the rise

Selina Lee / The Hustle

Some US fringe groups have followed their European counterparts. Dr. Martens with red laces abound among racist skinheads, and the Proud Boys wear black-and-gold Fred Perry polo shirts

They’ve also co-opted a glut of other brand symbols, often for random reasons. 

  • Tiki: White nationalists marched with Tiki torches in the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, “Unite the Right” rally.
  • New Balance: A white-supremacist blogger endorsed New Balance as the “official shoes of white people.” 
  • Pepe the Frog: The cartoon character became popular on 4chan and then mainstream social media, but was eventually co-opted by the alt-right.  
  • Wendy’s: An ill-advised tweet featuring Pepe the Frog led to alt-right followers deeming the restaurant “the official burger joint of the alt-right.” 
  • Buc-ee’s: Texas Proud Boys have recently started showing up to rallies in beaver masks resembling the mascot of the popular gas station chain. 

Selina Lee / The Hustle

Unlike in Europe, swastikas and other hate symbols are not banned in the US. But American hate groups, experts say, still seek out mainstream brands as a compromise.

A Fred Perry polo or New Balance sneakers shows solidarity toward a fringe group without overt association. 

“They kind of caught on to this idea of the brand,” said Daniela Peterka-Benton, a Montclair State University professor and author of the study “Hating in Plain Sight.” “I can wear certain things or utilize certain items… and people will know without me officially saying, ‘I’m a racist or something.’”

The randomness in choosing most of these brands, said Bond Benton, the co-author of “Hating in Plain Sight” and professor at Montclair State University, makes these associations with hate hard to detect and easy to intensify. 

And for the unlucky brands chosen by fringe groups, a dilemma arises: Disavowing the fringe group often adds more fuel to the fire. 

Pit Viper’s challenge 

Pit Viper launched in 2012 and quickly established itself as the sunglasses of choice for the outdoors partying crowd, sometimes taking the concept too far. Early ads were crass and exclusionary, and the founders admit to objectifying women. 

“There’s a lot of things that we’ve done in the past that we maybe wish we hadn’t,” Harkins told The Hustle in a recent interview at the company’s Salt Lake City headquarters. 

He added, referring to the alt-right’s usage of Pit Viper, “Maybe we could have seen this coming.”

New Pit Viper model with flippable lenses sported by Harkins (Selina Lee / The Hustle)

The co-optation of Pit Viper centered around two big events: 

Pit Viper thought Baked Alaska was a one-off event, but after the Fuentes incident, they realized the problem was more serious. 

Harkins posted on Twitter immediately, calling out Fuentes: “any website wiz-types out there who know how to prevent racist losers from buying your product?” 

Another tweet stated Pit Viper would donate to the Southern Poverty Law Center an amount equal to whatever Fuentes and other white supremacists spent on their products.

Pit Viper’s tweet got plenty of likes, but also more attention from their alt-right trolls. 

Selina Lee / The Hustle

“Any statement that a company puts out could potentially be taken as a challenge,” said David Noel, an Army veteran and art professor at West Virginia University who researches online gun communities. 

The problem with going public, according to Noel, was that Pit Viper was playing a “PC language game,” where it could trigger the hypermasculine and politically right-leaning portion of its customer base, even with well-meaning statements. 

Meanwhile, Fuentes and his supporters had nothing to lose and more incentive to continue provoking.

Some alt-right influencers advised followers to buy counterfeit pairs to dent Pit Viper’s business, and others continued to pester the company. In October 2021, Pit Viper had to stop an online event after being inundated by racist comments from the alt-right.   

These situations panicked Pit Viper leaders, who were unsure how to react. Finally, they decided to do more than engage in social media bravado. 

Why brands must become ‘uncool’

If speaking up is counterproductive, how are brands dealing? In some cases, they’re making the co-option uncool. 

  • Nike ran a campaign with Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback known for protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, displaying values that are unattractive to fringe crowds. 
  • Fred Perry launched an ad campaign featuring transgender models and other diverse groups. (It has also discontinued North American sales of the Proud Boys’ black-and-gold polo.) 
  • Tiki donated to progressive causes and had its CEO describe why the company supported them. 

“I think it can help if you do that, to kind of inoculate yourself by doing positive, good, and inclusive things and displaying that,” Benton told The Hustle.

Behemoths like Fred Perry and Nike can sustain fringe group associations and take measures to ward them off without alienating much of their massive base. Young companies like Pit Viper have to thread a needle. Anything that might seem political can alienate a large share of customers. 

After months of back-and-forth with fringe groups, Pit Viper moved forward with an “uncool” strategy. Co-founder Chris Garcin came up with the idea to counter-donate to organizations with opposite ideals of Pit Viper’s alt-right co-opters.

The results have introduced a new marketing branch:  “Pit Viper Gives a Fuck.” 

  • The company has donated tens of thousands of dollars to organizations related to causes like the environment, poverty, LGBTQIA+ rights, and war veterans.
  • This summer, it released a pair of Pride sunglasses, donating proceeds to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on the prevention of suicide for LGBTQIA+ youth. 

“If you’re afraid of the friction and you’re afraid of creating that, you’re not going to make a move. You’re just going to be fucking scared,” said Jake George, the company’s digital marketing director. “And that’s just something that Pit Viper doesn’t do.” 

Harkins and George’s response to their co-opters (Selina Lee / The Hustle)

The rollout also wasn’t free from scrutiny. 

One of the company’s announcements of their Pride sunglasses featured the environmentalist drag queen Pattie Gonia sporting Pit Vipers on Instagram — a campaign that disappointed many old followers.  

The Pride posts led to a loss of ~6k followers in one day and ~10k the next few days, according to Harkins, and so many negative comments that the company’s verified account was frozen. 

At the same time, Pit Viper gained more new followers, 5k the first day and 8k the days after. The company’s business has continued to increase through the turbulence of the last year, and it recently partnered with ex-NFL superstar Rob Gronkowski.  

To Harkins, the company’s newfound outspokenness hasn’t fully succeeded in warding off unwanted fans, but, he said, it “seems like we’ve kicked out a lot of people.”

Nonetheless, the image of Pit Viper clearly still resonates with extremists. 

Last month, Harkins got a call from a reporter about an anti-trans activist named Kelly Neidert, who was protesting outside a doctor’s office in Dallas. Neidert was wearing Pit Vipers.

Mark Dent contributed reporting to this article. 

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