Online marketing is a tricky beast simply because people on the internet seem to relish being cruel. Yet some companies, even some with the most sophisticated marketing in the world, have attempted to do viral marketing and failed spectacularly. These are 10 of the funniest ways in which online marketing fell apart all thanks to the work of trolls.
10. Chevy Tahoe
In March of 2006, Chevrolet probably thought they had a killer marketing idea for their sports utility vehicle, the Tahoe: they were going to let people make their own commercials! People could use stock footage and music to make a 30 second ad. They were hoping that people would go to the site, make their own commercials and then share it with their friends. It was brilliant because they thought it would be free advertising and all they had to do was set up an online video editor.
Predictably, even in 2006, it didn’t go that way at all. People used the ads to mock the truck’s gallons per miles and the amount of carbon emissions they release. One commercial had a Tahoe driving around a snowy mountain and the captions read: “Like snow, beautiful landscapes? Be sure to take it all in now because tomorrow this f***** SUV will change the world. Global warming isn’t a pretty SUV ad; it’s a frightening reality.”
In the end, the ad brought a lot of attention to the Tahoe, but is any publicity, good publicity? Yes, people saw the truck, but the ads mainly brought the problems with the Tahoe, and SVUs in general, to the forefront of the marketing campaign. And if you’re trying to sell something, you don’t want the product’s most negative qualities to be the aspect that people focus on.
9. The Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs have the 14th longest Championship dry spell in North American professional sports. Yes, there are teams with worse records, but what is so interesting about the Maple Leafs is that between 2005 and 2015 they were the most valuable NHL franchise and had a 13-year sellout streak for home games. That means that they had fan and financial support, but during that sellout streak, they only made the playoffs three times.
By late 2013, fans were getting frustrated with the team, which was again in the middle of a lackluster season. In December of that year, when the team had only won three of its last 13 games, the Maple Leafs launched the #SEAofBLUE campaign. People could use the hashtag, and their tweets and pictures would be placed on the team’s website. The problem was that there were no filters for the tweets.
At first, people posted pictures of themselves decked out in Maple Leafs clothes, and pictures from games. But before long, people started posting tweets that were hilariously critical of the team, the management, and the Twitter campaign itself. These tweets in turn showed up on the main page of the Maple Leafs’ website. The morning after the campaign launched, the Maple Leafs issued an apology and turned on the filters.
8. Susan Boyle
Whether you like Susan Boyle’s music or not, there is no denying her story is quite remarkable. She was plucked out of obscurity and became an international singing star after trying out for Britain’s Got Talent. Her rendition of the song “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables completely wowed the crowd, impressed the judges, and shocked many people on the internet. In the end, she didn’t win Britain’s Got Talent, but she did get a record deal.
In October of 2012, Boyle was going to release her second album and her marketing team sent out a tweet to thousands of fans that there was going to be an exclusive listening party, and fans could ask Boyle questions. To spread the word, Boyle’s team used the hashtag #SusanAlbumParty. Seems pretty harmless, right? Well, the problem was that a lot of gutter-minded people read it as Su’s Anal Bum Party. The hashtag, and inappropriate tweets (including pictures about the party), soon became one of the highest trending topics on Twitter.
Boyle’s team tried to fix the problem with a tweet from Boyle’s account that was posted hours later with the tag, #SusanBoyleAlbumParty, which doesn’t sound nearly as fun or as interesting as an “anal bum” party.
Coca-Cola is one of the most prestigious and iconic marketers in history. They are one of the most recognized brands in the entire world, which is partly in thanks to their sponsorships of some of the world’s biggest sporting events including the Olympics and World Cup. They’re also one of the companies that spend the most on advertising: in 2013, they dropped $3.3 billion trying to convince people to drink their unhealthy, carbonated sugar water. However, it may have paid off because they have the fourth most valuable brand, just behind Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Yet despite all that experience and skill, they also don’t know what they’re doing when it to comes viral marketing.
One failed attempt at viral marketing happened in February of 2015 with their #MakeItHappy campaign, which was meant to target internet bullying. Coca-Cola encouraged people to tag mean tweets with the #MakeItHappy tag and then an algorithm would turn the words into cute pictures. It was a nice idea in theory, but then some people at Gawker decided to upload passages from Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. After tweeting out a cute picture using the words of one of the most evil men in history, Coca-Cola ended the campaign.
The second online mishap happened in September of 2015 with their #ShareACoke campaign. At the time, people could order a Coke with personalized labels. A health advocate group ordered one of these bottles that read “Share a Coke with Obesity” and amazingly, Coke printed it and shipped it out. The picture of the bottle with the #ShareACoke tag quickly went viral.
The third campaign to fail miserably was #GifTheFeeling, which allowed people to make animated GIFs about how Coca-Cola made them feel. Coca-Cola blocked a lot of negative words like “diabetes” and “obesity” so people had to get clever with it. For example, one user wrote “Diabeetus,” a pronunciation made infamous by Wilford Brimley. Another funny GIF was a bottle exploding, with a the words “diarrhea” written on the GIF, which certainly invokes a less than appetizing image of Coca-Cola.
Remember when Donald Trump said that he would call Bill Gates and get the internet shut down to limit free speech? Well, that statement got to be a tad bit funnier in March of 2016, when Microsoft showed that they didn’t really understand the internet themselves.
On March 23, the company launched an artificial intelligence chat bot on Twitter called Tay, who used the Twitter handle @TayandYou. Tay would get smarter based on conversational understanding, so the more it talked to someone, the more it would learn. The AI bot was meant to connect with Millennials and the conversations were supposed to be playful.
Of course, an AI chat bot on Twitter that builds its intelligence based on conversations with other Twitter users went horribly wrong. The question is, how long do you think Tay lasted before the internet cracked Microsoft’s censors? A month? A week? Try hours. Tay started off upbeat and would be polite when people tried to draw her into controversial topics. But, in less than 24 hours, Tay was expressing her hatred for feminists and just flat out called one Twitter user a whore. She also supported Hitler and Trump. Tay said that she was pro-wall building and thinks that Trump gets things done. Seeing that Tay was clearly broken, Microsoft took her offline about 24 hours after launching.
On August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown, a black man, was shot to death by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting reignited racial tensions in America and also gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Looking to interject themselves into the incredibly sensitive topic, Starbucks asked its baristas to write #RaceTogether on its cups. The idea was that people would take to Twitter to talk about race and ethnicity in America. Customers, who probably just wanted their overpriced caffeinated drink, didn’t respond well. They used the hashtag to blast the multi-billion dollar company for trying to exploit a real social issue for their own marketing. Critics also pointed out that racism is a major problem and a hashtag promoted by Starbucks wasn’t going to improve the situation.
The CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, noted that there was controversy, but said the company’s intentions were purely innocent. Others point out that the last person who should be coordinating a discussion on race is a white guy worth $3.1 billion.
Yes, we know Microsoft owns the search engine Bing, and we already talked about Microsoft, but this marketing campaign was so awful that it deserves its own entry.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake happened off the coast of northeast Japan, which led to a giant tsunami that was up to 133 feet tall and ultimately reached six miles inland. Nearly 16,000 people died and another 2,500 were reported missing. Sadly, a majority of the people who died ended up drowning.
The day after the tragedy, Bing posted the following Tweet:
How you can #SupportJapan – http://binged.it/fEh7iT. For every retweet, @bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K.
They also included “Try Bing. A new way to search, explore, & decide,” but later deleted the tagline.
Many people were completely appalled with Bing’s crassness towards the situation because it looked like they were trying to use the tragedy as a way to market themselves. People also asked if Bing got less than 100,000 retweets, were they going to send less than $100,000? Soon the tag #F***Bing started trending and within seven hours, Bing apologized and said they donated the $100,000 to the disaster relief. We should also point out that Microsoft donated millions of dollars without any prompting from Twitter users.
3. JPMorgan Chase
In terms of professions that people trust, bankers and stockbrokers are near the bottom of the list. One bank with a rather questionable history in terms of ethics is JPMorgan Chase. For example, in 2013, instead of facing a criminal investigation, JPMorgan agreed to pay $13 billion to the Justice Department over the poor quality of their mortgage-backed securities in the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis. This was after they received a $12 billion payout from the government in 2008 after the housing market crashed. Oh, and they used the taxpayer funded bailout money to pay themselves massive bonuses while over a million Americans lost their homes.
JPMorgan is also the bank through which Bernie Madoff ran his Ponzi scheme. Executives at JPMorgan supposedly knew about the scam, but they never reported him to any authorities in the two decades that he ran the scheme. As a result, JPMorgan agreed to pay $2 billion in fines, which isn’t much considering Madoff stole $50 billion from investors and the JPMorgan executives got rich themselves, but faced no consequences.
Now those are just two of their biggest controversies in recent years and we only explained them so you can truly appreciate how stupid their Twitter campaign was.
With the self-awareness of a drunken frat boy at the ballet, JPMorgan thought it would be a good idea to do a live Q&A on Twitter on November 14, 2013. The day before the Q&A, they posted a tweet asking for people with questions to use the #AskJPM tag. The tweet went viral and within 24 hours there were close to 17,000 questions. Not surprisingly, many questions pertained to their shady practices and questionable ethics. JPMorgan reviewed the questions and cancelled the Twitter takeover before it was supposed to start.
Hopefully JPMorgan learned that Twitter won’t solve their image problems. Instead they may actually have to focus on being ethical and try not to rip people off.
In 2013, CNN aired the documentary Blackfish, which made a very strong argument that SeaWorld’s housing of orca whales is cruel because orcas are social animals. The result of their years of captivity is that one of the park’s most famous killer whales, a bull named Tilikum, was driven insane. He was responsible for the death of two people and seriously injured another one. What’s interesting is that there are no recorded human deaths caused by orcas in the wild. Besides the mental impact on the animals, the whales also had a drastically shorter lifespan.
After the documentary was released, SeaWorld’s attendance plummeted and their stock drop nearly 40 percent. SeaWorld thought they were treated unfairly and decided that the best way to address the allegations was to take to Twitter with the #AskSeaWorld campaign in March of 2015. That’s right. SeaWorld was going address an 82-minute long documentary that painted them as a soulless, money hungry corporation that exploits the torture of social animals by allowing anyone with a Twitter account to ask them a question. What could go wrong?
You have to wonder, what was the end game here? What type of magical question could they get that would change people’s minds? Most questions were similar to what the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) tweeted:
“Why do you LIE & tell guests collapsed dorsal fins are normal when only 1 percent suffer this in the wild?”
After getting a barrage of questions regarding their treatment of the animals, SeaWorld didn’t end up answering any of them. In fact, they went on the offensive and belittled the people who asked those questions, and called other people liars. Finally, SeaWorld gave up and tweeted:
“No time for bots and bullies. We want to answer your questions.”
The media tried to get in contact with SeaWorld after the Twitter disaster and no one was available for comment.
1. The New York Police Department
Over the past several years, there’s been a growing disapproval of the actions of some American police officers, and police departments across the country have found that their image has taken quite a hit. The New York Police Department’s public relations department somehow seemed oblivious to this, or perhaps even more unlikely, they just expected the internet to take the high road. Nevertheless, on April 22, 2014, they launched the #myNYPD campaign with the following tweet:
“Do you have a photo w/ a member of the NYPD? Tweet us & tag it #myNYPD. It may be featured on our Facebook.”
Their hope was that people would post friendly pictures of themselves with police officers. But, of course, no one did. Instead, they posted pictures depicting brutality at the hands of NYPD officers, including pictures of their handling of protestors at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. At one point, there were 10,000 posts per hour with the tag #MyNYPD and a very large majority of them didn’t make the NYPD look particularly good. Within 24 hours, there were over 70,000 posts using the #myNYPD tag regarding police brutality, shooting of unarmed people, corruption, and more notorious acts committed by the NYPD. The NYPD tried to salvage the campaign by retweeting pictures they liked, but the overwhelming negative tweets brought even more international attention to the problems facing the department’s public relation problems.