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Brand #Fail

Saddled by a wave of online faux pas, marketers struggle to break through the wall of consumer criticism

Credit: Kyle T. Webster

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Social media? For too many brands, it might feel more like anti-social media.

It’s no secret that the rush of consumers and advertisers to Facebook and Twitter has made it ever easier for the masses to be heard—and for brands to mess up.

The minefield of customer commentary has been a part of the conversation since the dawn of social media, and the various high-profile brand blowups over the years have been well-documented. Considering that so many marketers have learned the hard way that consumers have a voice—and they’re going to use it—one might think that brands would have gotten savvy by now. And yet, a surprising number seem to have still missed the memo: Tread lightly—you’re just a visitor here.

“One of the things that makes bad social media marketing or advertising worse than bad TV or bad print is you’re going into the consumer’s backyard. This is their place,” says Henry Copeland, CEO of ad network Blogads, which over the last four years has run the annual, tongue-in-cheek competition #Suxorz, celebrating the worst in social media “fails.”

With a growing number of advertisers still learning the lesson the hard way, it has become clear that none of them is absolutely safe. “I cannot think of a brand that doesn’t live with some type of risk of a crisis erupting in social and digital media,” says John Bell, global managing director of Social@Ogilvy, Ogilvy & Mather’s recently formed social media practice.

Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research and co-author of the social media business books Groundswell and Empowered, notes that the bar for exposure remains extremely low. “If a brand has customers, it could potentially have a problem,” he says.

Many social media firestorms have ignited around a company’s failure on the service front. Take blogger Jeff Jarvis’ “Dell Hell,” a series of online rants about his crappy laptop, or Canadian musician Dave Carroll’s 2009 YouTube hit “United [Airlines] Breaks Guitars.” Still other dustups have involved lamebrained or even outright offensive marketing messages. And as some unfortunate marketers have found, once an offending message gets out, it’s next to impossible to quickly clear the air.

This past March, Belvedere Vodka drew a torrent of outrage after posting an apparently pro-rape ad to its Facebook and Twitter streams. The visual: a grinning man yanking a frightened woman toward him. The headline: “Unlike some people...Belvedere always goes down smoothly.” The brand quickly pulled the ad, issued an apology and made a contribution to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Ogilvy’s Bell calls the Belvedere ad an isolated instance of “poor judgment” somewhere along the marketing chain. As soon as the company’s top ranks became aware of it, “they reacted quickly in a way that showed what they truly believed and what their honest values are,” he says.

Yet the brand’s response, as timely and as clear as it might have been, failed to quiet many critics. Still-furious consumers dismissed the donation to the anti-sexual violence nonprofit as a PR stunt. A few took to the organization’s Facebook page to berate it for accepting the cash. Meanwhile, the actress whose image appeared in the ad filed suit against Belvedere.

Navigating one’s way to safety from a social media tsunami is even more challenging when a marketer gets entangled in controversy through no fault of its own.

After details of the Trayvon Martin killing began to emerge, Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea (which the victim was reported as carrying on him when he was shot) became unwitting symbols in the racially charged tragedy. Critics began lobbing claims on Twitter and Facebook that the brands were profiting from all the exposure. Both companies released measured statements offering their condolences to Martin’s family—and announcing that they would have no further comment on the matter.

It wasn’t enough for some, who still demanded that the brands donate the profits they had allegedly made from the tragedy.

But, experts say, there wasn’t much more the brands could do. As Bell notes, “There was no way for them to enter such an explosive conversation and expect to do well in it.” At best, they might have stopped the presses on their regular advertising, too. “Ironically, if I were in that position, I would actually pull back on some of the marketing campaigns,” says Bernoff.

Even a seemingly innocuous attempt to capitalize on social media’s influence can blow up in a marketer’s face. In January, McDonald’s saw #McDStories, a hashtag meant to showcase farmers who grow its produce, get hijacked by Twitter users posting less-than-appetizing messages about their experiences at the fast food chain. McDonald’s tried again in March, attempting to generate buzz around its St. Patrick’s Day-themed, green-colored milkshake. What resulted was as much mockery as meme.

The opportunities for advertisers to make mistakes—or to simply appear tone deaf—have multiplied as they juggle the ever-complex media mix, pushing out more messages through more channels at a faster pace.

On top of that, it might be impossible for even the most beloved of brands to avoid flak altogether. “Social media is a pressure cooker,” says Copeland. “The hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people out there are going to take your idea, and they’re going to try to shred it or tear it apart and find what’s weak or stupid in it.”

Why is that? Among other things, the social Web is about self-expression, as Copeland points out, a place where users are competing against one another for the pithiest, wittiest—and yes, most incendiary—observations. “You’ve got a lot of wise guys out there who are going to take potshots at you,” he says.

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