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Pharrell's Hat Was an Inside Job

We are through the looking glass on the biggest hat-themed viral marketing conspiracy theory of all time.

Last night, a completely spontaneous and organically creative tweet from the Arby's fast food brand caught a lot of attention during the Grammys broadcast. Noticing that there were a few similarities between their logo and the hat worn by Pharrell Williams, they insinuated themselves into the conversation, tweeting:

Hey @Pharrell, can we have our hat back? #GRAMMYs

— Arby's (@Arbys) January 27, 2014

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It was an example of the sort of lightning-in-a-bottle marketing that you just can't plan for, right? How did they do it?

Earlier in the evening, Buzzfeed laid the groundwork for the big reveal, tweeting that Pharrell’s Hat Is The Most Important Thing At The Grammys followed by a post echoing the sentiment.

Hard to disagree with that. It's undeniably a slightly bigger hat than you'd normally see people wear. A little while later they added another clue, filling the hat in question with tasty-looking sandwiches.

Before long there was a post up at Buzzfeed on the quickly-viral “beef.” The Arby’s Twitter Account Totally Called Out Pharrell’s Insane Grammy’s Hat And It Was Awesome.

Damn, he got called out, son.

“Dang, Arby’s, you were fast on that one” the post read. “Is it too early to name Arby’s the best brand Twitter troll of the night?”

Indeed, this was some epic “trolling,” but not of who you think.

Dozens of Pharrell's Hat Twitter accounts popped up almost instantly to keep the momentum going. Granted, a lot of this is just because people everywhere are woefully unfunny and cliché, but if you think for one second that the most popular one, with around 15k followers today, isn't part of the con, you're not paying attention.

The overall effort was widely praised by the ad media, including Ad Week, who concluded that Arby's Slayed the Grammys With This Tweet About Pharrell Willams, a common reaction. “Hey Pharrell, Arby's wants it's hat back!” shouted the New York Post today. Of course they did. Variety couldn't help themselves either.

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Arby's weren't the only brand horning in on the synergy, of course. Quaker Oats, another vaguely hat-related brand jumped into the fray themselves.

Hey @Arbys, did @Pharrell give you that hat back? Still haven't heard from @Madonna about mine. - Larry #Grammys

— QuakerOats (@Quaker) January 27, 2014

You'll never guess what happened next? 8 People Madonna Looked Like At The Grammys. They're all just people in black suits coincidentally juxtaposed with the Quaker Oats brand logo.

Also impressed by the good-natured meme fun? Pepsi Co. Pepsi owns Quaker, incidentally. You'll probably be able to guess pretty easily what kind of cola they serve at Arby's. Hyundai USA offered up praise as well.

But wait a second, the tweet from Arby's wasn't even that original. It was borrowed from Complex Style.

Incase you missed Pharrell's hat #GRAMMYs pic.twitter.com/dH9cqiwSQ9

— Complex Style (@ComplexStyle) January 27, 2014

This wasn't the first time Complex has covered Arby's antics on social media. They also have a content partnership with Pepsi. Surely something stinks here. At least we can rest assured that Williams isn't in on the game?

Y'all tryna start a roast beef? ���� "@Arbys: Hey @Pharrell, can we have our hat back? #GRAMMYs

— Pharrell Williams (@Pharrell) January 27, 2014

He's probably just having a laugh right? Then again, Williams has a history of branding partnerships with Pepsi, including designing a new can for them a few years back. Here he is in a Pepsi jacket in front of a Pepsi logo opening a bottle of Pepsi.

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It's all connected, man.

For their part, Arby's maintain that the tweet was just a good bit of timely fun. “These types of engagements and social media interactions are completely spontaneous, that's the way this medium works,” Chief Marketing Officer Rob Lynch told me. “We've worked hard here to build a team that is focused on finding meaningful and relevant ways to engage in social conversations. The Grammys are a perfect representation of that where you've got a lot of quick serve restaurant customers sitting at home watching the programming. We thought it was a great opportunity to strike up a conversation. Obviously it struck a chord.”

Arby's has a social media team helmed by an employee names Josh Martin, who put out the tweet in question last night.

There was no conversation beforehand with Buzzfeed about the tweet, Lynch says. Then again, he also said that they have no relationship with the site in general, which totally seems legit.

“We don't have a partnership with them, they just picked up on the story. I know that they've reached out to us multiple times to engage, but we haven't really brought that relationship to life yet. We don't connect with them on a regular basis.” Buzzfeed didn't immediately respond to my request.

Arby's, despite their protestations over the phone just now is a Buzzfeed partner, and have been actively pursuing sponsored posts on the popular site, like this one from last year about the history of the Reuben. So are Pepsi Co and Hyundai. Neither of the Arby's or Quaker posts about the Grammys were labeled as partner content posts on Buzzfeed.

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Maybe they weren't. Perhaps it's true that this particular tweet wasn't born of a nefarious relationship between brand and content farm, but isn't that even worse in a way? You could almost understand it if the editorial side is getting paid.

And what's the big deal anyway if it was a calculated scheme to get us talking about a brand? Brands and marketing have long been a part of the natural media conversation, something we'll all be even more acutely aware of this coming weekend. But the difference there is that when we gather around the water cooler, metaphoric or otherwise, to talk about the “best commercials of the Super Bowl”, we do so of our own volition. We're willing participants in a discussion about advertising, with all the attendant self-awareness that necessitates. But this is the new advertising model right here, a Trojan Horse smuggled into the conversation under the guise of social media shenanigans. The worst part is how readily we all fall for it every single time, enlisting ourselves in the marketing team for Arby's and Pepsi and the like because they made a half-assed, barely funny reference to a TV show we were watching. What's worse still is how media outlets like this one unfailingly pick up the grab-assing the next day as if it were an actual news story. What Brands Won Last Night On Twitter? Ask Time or Vanity Fair or Vulture.

All the brands won, actually. Every single one that we end up talking about like this. Hell, for all you know this is a meta sponsored post itself meant to keep the conversation going. At least we got an answer to the important question of what was inside Pharrell's hat though. We also learned what's inside the average Twitter users' hats too, nothing much at all.

The important thing is that we all go out and definitely buy some roast beef sandwiches and wash them down with a refreshing Pepsi Cola mixed with oatmeal then crash our Hyundai's off of a cliff, because we don't deserve anything nice anymore. Oh, and if you think of it, buy some of Pharrell's music too. That's what the Grammys are all about.

Follow Luke on Twitter: @lukeoneil47