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Top 7 Social Media Fails of 2012 (And What You Can Learn From Them)

by Sherice Jacob

Social media marketing is full of opportunity and danger.

As you will see, things can get out of control in a hurry as big brands lose their tight-fisted grip over their communications to employees, outsourced firms and customers.

Here are some of the most memorable campaigns that left their respective companies picking up the PR pieces.

Chick-Fil-A: Fake Supporter Gets Busted

After Chick-Fil-A restaurants ignited a nationwide uproar over their CEO’s comments on gay marriage, people on both sides of the ideological spectrum made their feelings known.  Proponents staged “kiss-ins” while supporters wrapped lines around the company in a show of religious solidarity.  While the  firestorm was going on, a supporter named Abby Farle took to Facebook to defend the company’s actions – only to be revealed as a possible PR guy.

The supporter had joined Facebook 8 hours ago and used a stock photo from Shutterstock to conceal his/her identity.

The Takeaway: This is a tricky situation that can easily spin out of control to become a company’s worst nightmare. How far do you stand up for your beliefs at the risk of potentially alienating your customers?  Rather than hire a PR stuntman to handle the tumbles and falls for you, let your supporters do the talking.  Better yet, see the KitchenAid fail below and reconsider setting foot into religious or political territory to start with.

McDonalds’ #McDStories Hashtag Horror Story

Companies have to tread carefully when it comes to inviting customer feedback around hashtags.  Just like Wendys’ 2011 #WheresTheBeef promotion being highlighted on “Meatless Mondays”, McDonalds thought it could stay safe by promoting #McDStories – a hashtag inviting customers to share their favorite memories involving McDonalds.   As you might expect, users posted some of the most revolting and startling “stories”, all followed by the promoted hashtag.

The Takeaway:  Never leave a #hashtag unattended. Especially if you’re a large chain with questionable practices and even more questionable ingredients.  Research any upcoming events or abbreviations that may conflict with your chosen hashtag, campaign or announcement.

American Apparel Fails to Weather the Storm

During Hurricane Sandy, and in the aftermath, some companies were able to successfully mingle promotions and preparedness, such as Sears and its tweets advertising discounts on generators, cleaning supplies and other storm gear. If you’re selling t-shirts, however, you’re not likely to have the same appeal, as American Apparel learned when they offered a Hurricane Sandy discount “storm warning” on their website:

The backlash from the Twitterverse was immediate — boycotts and outrage over the distasteful ads rang loud and clear. American Apparel had no comment.

The Takeaway:  Not every promotion can (or should) be tactfully inserted into a serious event. If you have to stop and question whether or not it’s a good idea – it probably isn’t.

CelebBoutique – Open Mouth, Insert Foot

The tragic movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado over the summer gripped the news and the nation.  Seizing upon the perfect “opportunity”, CelebBoutique social media managers must have assumed it has to be their new Kim Kardashian-inspired Aurora dress which recently went on sale.

Once they learned of their mistake, however, they dug themselves a deeper hole by announcing that their PR firm was not U.S. based and didn’t make the connection with the shooting until it was too late. They simply saw #Aurora trending on Twitter, and ran with it.

The Takeaway:  Blaming a tweet, even if unintentionally made in poor taste on your non-U.S. based social team isn’t going to win you any sympathy points, fans or followers.  It just shows how truly out of touch you are with your audience.

What’s Cookin’, KitchenAid?  Don’t Mix Business and Personal Accounts

A member of KitchenAid’s Twitter team recently showed their true political leanings in a post about the U.S. President shortly before Election Day. Writing like a teenage texter, she tweeted that Obama’s grandmother died 3 days before his election because she must’ve known something about how bad things were going to get.

Obviously, this tweet was intended to come from a personal account, but had the damage already been done?  As it turns out, the chief social media manager came to the rescue with a professional and sincere apology that quite possibly extinguished the political fire before it spread out of control.

Read these tweets starting from the bottom for the proper chronology:

The Takeaway:  Hot-button issues like religion and politics are sure to start a flame war.  Make sure you’re signed into the correct account before you charge into battle.  Better yet, don’t post anything you wouldn’t want plastered on a billboard with your company name under it.

The CamryEffect – How to Spam Friends and Irritate People

Prior to the Superbowl, Toyota wanted to announce a contest it was running to promote the Camry.  Consequently, it registered (and Twitter verified) several accounts, including @CamryEffect1, @CamryEffect2, @CamryEffect3, @CamryEffect4, @CamryEffect5 and all the way up to #10.  If that didn’t sound spammy enough, it also responded to users’ tweets about the Superbowl with announcements promoting its contest.

The advertising agency behind the promotion, Saatchi and Saatchi LA failed to use any type of real customer engagement metrics and simply threw a broad blanket @mention to everyone tweeting about the Superbowl.  Needless to say, the accounts were pulled and posts were deleted.

The Takeaway:  Trying to strong-arm users into talking about your brand is not the way to make it go viral.  Approaching prospects cold with zero engagement leads to an avalanche of spam reports.

Don’t Dub the Dew

In an effort to get on the crowdsourcing bandwagon, PepsiCo, makers of Mountain Dew, decided to put their new apple-infused flavor name to a vote by their fans.  Known as “Dub the Dew”, the campaign was hijacked by everything-goes forum 4Chan, and the top 10 names turned into a boiling pot of offensiveness with names like “Hitler did nothing wrong”, “Diabeetus” and “Gushin’ Granny”.

Fortunately, Mountain Dew issued a statement that they were removing the offensive content and putting measure in place to prevent such a problem from ever happening again.  They highlighted other successful means of inviting feedback from the internet, such as the DEWmocracy, where users picked the next big flavor.

In this case, Dub the Dew collateral damage was contained mainly because the campaign was only limited to a local market, and was initiated by a customer’s idea, rather than a company-wide promotion.

The Takeaway:  Be careful how much control you give users – even with the most seemingly innocent intentions in mind.  Have protective measures in place to prevent hacks and hijacks.

Now It’s Your Turn!

What are some of your favorite social media fails?  How would you solve these major blunders? Share your thoughts in the comments below!



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Sherice Jacob

Sherice Jacob helps website owners improve conversion rates with custom design, copywriting and website reviews.  Get your free conversion checklist and web copy tune-up by visiting


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  1. ExRat says:
    December 5, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    These tickled me, particularly the Dub The Dew one. I wonder, did they actually hack it or just submit some names and then do some crowdsourcing of their own to pound it with votes? Funny.

    • Russ Henneberry says:
      December 6, 2012 at 9:08 am

      I think the latter ExRat. I think they used the forum that Sherice mentions in the post to stage an attack. 🙂

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