Fabricating outrage out of next-to-nothing is a very 21st century method of selling your wares, explains Ben Cohen

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It had been a quiet week at the Open Doors Media Office (just the two of us). Our latest press release about 70,000 people driven from their homes by Islamic State in Mozambique had barely registered even a mild shrug from the media. Then an email from an unknown name dropped into my inbox.

A freelance journalist wondered if anyone at Open Doors, being a Christian organisation, might want to comment on a story he was writing.

Iceland (the store) was trial marketing a new brand of hot cross buns…without the cross (cue dramatic music). In its place was a stylish tick (think a truncated Nike swoosh).

According to the press release: “Research conducted by Iceland revealed that one in five (20%) Hot Cross Bun eaters would prefer to see a tick on their Easter staple, rather than a cross…Iceland is introducing a trial of Hot Tick Buns to gauge feedback to see if the buns tick all the right boxes.”

They went on to add that the public response “really surprised” them, which is odd as they must have been acting on some sort of hunch when they commissioned the survey in the first place.

My jaw hit the floor, not in outrage, but in amazement. This was a stroke of marketing genius! I could see with an eerie prescience how this unholy bunfight was going to unfold:

1. The papers would launch the story with “a huge row has erupted over a controversial new hot cross bun…”

2. It would turn into a miniature culture war in a teacup, gain massive press coverage and fill the online comments sections of the daily papers with sound and fury.

3. Iceland would reap the rewards with hectares of free advertising, right before the big Easter weekend.

It was a very 2024 kind of scandal, totally confected (pardoning the pun). However, along with Henrietta our CEO, we decided to hitch a short ride on its coat tails, while the “controversy” was, er, current.

Neither of us were remotely shocked by what was shortly to be christened the “not cross bun”. However, we thought it was a chance to talk about two of our favourite topics in front of a massive audience - the cross and the persecuted Church.

We prepared a quote saying that it was perfectly understandable that some people might not want a cross on their bun. Having an image of an unspeakably cruel form of execution on an oversized fruity teacake is, when you think about it, strange, shocking even. As we quipped in the quote it was like “putting an electric chair on a croissant”.

“We work with persecuted Christians around the world who face prison or even execution for displaying a cross,” Henrietta continued. “So, I love the fact we’ve got freedom of choice in the UK, even down to how we want our sweet treats to look.”

Sure enough, “not cross bun-gate” broke in the media, and despite our complete lack of outrage, we were widely quoted. After The Sun published, I was quickly contacted by a charming chap at the Mail who went on to quote Henrietta in full and in context. Then the story spread to The Express, The Telegraph, The Mirror, The Standard and even The Independent.

“Fury as Iceland replaces iconic religious symbol on its hot cross buns with a TICK” screamed The Sun headline, before anyone even had a chance to be furious.

Soon enough, though, life imitated headlines and the real outrage began. Reform MP Lee Anderson decried the “ridiculous namby-pamby virtue-signalling”, and even Jacob Rees Mogg weighed in, musing “Who would buy a frozen tick bun?” (suggesting he was not a regular at the retailers, who stock a wide variety of un-frozen baked goods).

Then, most depressing of all, the fury erupted online.

“Jesus didn’t die on a tick, hot cross buns are just another way of erasing Christianity…” raged Gino on X.

“Boycott Iceland until they get the message” urged Gordon. “This is a Christian country”.

Iceland did indeed get the message: outrage sells. “They weren’t for real btw lads – and sales of our devout and trad hot cross buns were up 134 per cent yesterday,” boasted Richard Walker, the executive chairman of Iceland.

Christians are not called to live in a state of constant outrage

There were allegedly a very few of the not cross buns produced and sold (not in my local store, though) but Richard was right: Gino, Lee and Gordon had been played for mugs, along with many more well-meaning Christians - believing they were somehow fighting for the honour of their Lord and saviour and faith of their forefathers.

Fabricating outrage out of next-to-nothing is a very 21st century method of selling your wares. Articles and comments that spark negative emotions like anger and outrage keep you online for longer and make you more likely to spend your money too.

Businesses like Iceland believe they can rely on Christians like you and me to turn into “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” when we are poked with a metaphorical stick. It’s not just marketers, but also self-appointed culture warriors generating fury, supposedly on our behalf, every time our Christian faith is slighted - all in order to raise their online profile, I would cynically suggest.

I’m convinced we aren’t called to live in a state of constant outrage as Christians. There is plenty to be genuinely angry and shocked about though: the horrific persecution of millions of Christians around the world is one example close to our hearts at Open Doors (and Premier Christianity has today published one of our stories on this).

When Christians engage in confected culture war outrage over “not cross buns” or Easter eggs without the word “Easter” on the box, we are playing into the hands of the outrage-merchants, generating revenue and attention for them. And, as Christians, we end up looking not-a-little silly into the bargain as we confirm their worst stereotypes of us as sour faced moral gatekeepers.