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Hurricane Sandy highlighted the fact that brands still struggle with social marketing, as retailers fell over themselves to try and use the disaster to sell more clothes.

The immediacy of social media makes it the perfect way for brands to expose themselves to ridicule by sending out a kneejerk tweet without thinking through the consequences.

But not all of the examples on this list are errant tweets – indeed some obviously had a great deal of thought behind them, which probably makes the ensuing fall out far worse.

So without further ado, here’s the top 10 social media fails of 2012 so far...

McDonald’s

In a shining example of a brand being blissfully unaware of its own reputation, McDonald’s used the hashtag #McDStories to promote video content of their suppliers talking about McDonald’s ingredients.

Unfortunately for Ronald the campaign was hijacked by consumers complaining about the company’s service and the quality of the food.

And it’s a campaign that won’t die - a quick Twitter search shows that people are still using the hashtag to attack McDonald’s.

Snickers

Back in January Snickers ‘hijacked’ the Twitter accounts of Katie Price and Rio Ferdinand for an ill-advised publicity stunt.

Price posted a series of tweets discussing the Eurozone debt crisis and calling for ‘large scale quantitative easing in 2012’, which had many of her 1.5m followers initially guessing she’d been hacked.

However, the four tweets were swiftly followed by one that clarified the issue; “You’re not you when you’re hungry @snickersuk #hungry #spon” – which also contained a link to the photo above of Price holding up a Snickers bar. 

The stunt earned Snickers a lot of press, but also annoyed Price’s followers who didn’t like being tricked into reading marketing messages.

Two users even complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, but an investigation cleared Mars of any wrongdoing. 

Urban Outfitters

Where you and I see 80 mile-an-hour winds and widespread flooding, some marketers apparently see a business opportunity.

Several US retailers tried to make light of Hurricane Sandy by tweeting special offers, but Urban Outfitters' was perhaps the most tasteless.

Its tweet offering free shipping included the hashtag #ALLSOGGY. Nice.

The Gap was also guilty of an ill-timed tweet that tried to increase online sales, but at least it also advised everyone affected by Sandy to “stay safe!”

HubSpot

While most people recoil in horror when brands try to make a profit from human suffering, there are a few who see it as canny marketing.

Step forward HubSpot, which posted a blog highlighting ‘Five Hurricane Sandy Newsjacks from Marketers’ that appeared to celebrate brands that were trying to use the disaster as a way of driving sales.

After being rightly criticised, HubSpot took down the blog and apologised “for promoting the idea of newsjacking a tragedy.” 

It also donated £5,000 to the Red Cross, which was probably taken out of the blogger's wages.

Swedish tourist board

In an effort to show the world what Sweden is really like, the nation’s tourist board struck upon the idea of turning over control of its Twitter account to a different citizen each week.

The results have been mixed, with some users proving to be quite charming while others have turned out to be borderline anti-Semitic.

In June Sonja Abrahamsson used the account to pose a series of questions asking why some people didn’t like Jews, which unsurprisingly caused quite a bit of controversy.

The tourist board stuck to it guns though and refused to censor Abrahamsson.

In fact the scheme is still running, evidenced by the fact that followers were treated to this cultural insight earlier today:

Odeon

This example highlights the importance of having someone constantly available to check your social media accounts to prevent complaints from escalating.

On bank holiday Friday in August an Odeon customer vented his anger at a disappointing cinema visit on the company’s Facebook wall.

It’s almost impossible to find out how Odeon responded to the complaint as the post now has now more than 25,000 comments and 297,000 likes, but suffice to say the cinema chain didn’t nip it in the bud early enough.

Steven Gerrard

All Twitter hashtags are likely to be hijacked by spambots or jokers at some point, it’s one of the risks of social media that we can’t avoid.

But even so, I feel sorry for the Adidas staff members that had to find genuine questions among the torrent of abuse and wisecracks directed towards Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard yesterday.

It was a simple enough campaign – let fans ask Gerrard questions using the hashtag #AskStevieG. But anyone could see that the majority of responses would be along these lines:

Ryanair

Back in August Ryanair customer Suzy McLeod complained on Facebook that she had been forced to pay €300 after forgetting to print off her family’s boarding passes.

Within days the post had 350,000 ‘likes’ and nearly 18,000 supportive comments.

This would register as a PR disaster for most brands, but Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary was typically unapologetic:

We think Mrs McLeod should pay 60 euros for being so stupid.

KitchenAid

In general voters don’t turn to homeware brands for their political news, so it’s hard to work out what possessed KitchenAid’s social media team to tweet an insult about President Obama’s dead grandmother during one of the presidential debates.

The tweet was quickly deleted and an apology was posted calling it an “irresponsible tweet,” but the damage had already been done.

KitchenAid's senior director Cynthia Soledad was forced to issue a further grovelling apology in which she said that the personal responsible "won't be tweeting for us anymore."

Waitrose

When is a fail not a fail? When it reinforces your brand image as a quality, upmarket grocery chain.

Waitrose is added to this list as people did hijack its #WaitroseReasons hashtag to poke fun at the brand, but the tweets were generally jokes about the brand’s upmarket image rather than complaints about shoddy service or poor quality food.

So rather than exposing Waitrose to ridicule or vitriol, it reinforced the fact that consumers see it as a premium brand that is a cut above other grocery stores.

And Waitrose clearly saw the campaign as a success:

David Moth

Published 7 November, 2012 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

1676 more posts from this author

Comments (28)

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Halit Bozdogan

over 3 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

Think before you Tweet! Not every great idea is going to be so great once it hits the social media airwaves. If you're going to be walking a line then you need to prepare for the fallout.

over 3 years ago

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Adeebah

"Several US retailers tried to make light of Hurricane Sandy by tweeting special offers, but American Apparel's was perhaps the most tasteless."

I think you mean Urban Outfitters here? As the screen cap shows and that paragraph is titled...

Not all hispter clothiers are the same!!

over 3 years ago

David Moth

David Moth, Editor & Head of Social at EconsultancyStaff

@Adeebah, thanks for pointing that out! I've fixed it now.

over 3 years ago

Gemma Holloway

Gemma Holloway, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

It's worrying how many other cases there are like these. Social media is a powerful too if implemented correctly, but all too often these examples are appearing. As a frequent shopper at urban outfitters and a fan of how they implement other social media platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram - I was shocked to read about their Twitter blunder above. Disappointed in them to say the least.

over 3 years ago

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Angela Patton

The pressure on marketers to excel through tactical campaigns as well as strategic brings risk. With SM quick thinking has created some monsters. No excuse for not monitoring though, or having a plan on what to do if the campaign is hijacked.

over 3 years ago

Dan Flanagan

Dan Flanagan, Founder at Don't Believe The Hype | Social PR | Brighton

The British Gas Facebook page is always good value. fb.me/qrYu1D

There are some massive fails on there especially, on the Scott Bennett post last month, which highlighted what can happen if brands don't monitor their channels over the weekend.

over 3 years ago

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Tim Adams

Interesting collection! I'm quite surprised how often common sense fails, even when the individuals involved are in charge of public communication channels. Let me add one of the more shocking mistakes committed this year: The #Aurora Massacre Newsjack: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/20/business/la-fi-mo-aurora-kim-kardashian-20120720

over 3 years ago

Andy Williams

Andy Williams, Digital Marketing Manager at Koozai

Aren't a couple of these just great examples of not thinking before acting?

Take the Snickers "hack" for example, on the face of it actually quite a funny and effective campaign but you really have to think about who you are targeting. To most it would have been obvious that fans of Katie Price would have taken offence to this and not seen the funny side.

The Steven Gerrard hashtag - surly Adidas have other high profile stars on their books that they could have used. Using Gerrard was always going to bring about the abuse it did.

Social Media is awesome but you have to think about it and think about who you are targeting.

over 3 years ago

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Duncan

Are they all fails? We are here talking about them, most tweets are dead as soon as they are sent.

over 3 years ago

Jonathan Mallia

Jonathan Mallia, Lead Management & Marketing Automation Consultant at GFI Software

Another great article.. i can't help myself notice bloggers and social media specialists getting carried away with self destructive messages - we have all appreciate "the force" power of social media and there will always be the "GOOD" and the "EVIL"... I guess the "evil" back fires most of the time and the latter always win :)

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Duncan - I think they have all been labelled as fails, though examples like that from Waitrose, and to a certain extent Ryanair may have actually achieved the goal of reinforcing the brand. Cheap in Ryanair's case, premium for Waitrose.

over 3 years ago

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Mark Walters

The Snickers/Katie Price was pretty good I doubt she would have lost many followers over that. She might even have gained some via the extra publicity. I wish my 'fails' worked like that!

over 3 years ago

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branding expert

That stunt by Snickers is somewhat unethical not to mention, tasteless. I can't believe Katie Price would jeopardize here followers for that ad.

over 3 years ago

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Amy Fowler

Agree with Duncan that these aren't all necessarily fails.

The Ryanair one for instance; okay, most brands, if they acted like that, would've committed a massive fail. But that whole attitude is part of their 'thing'.

I kind of admire them for sticking to their guns so much.

And it doesn't seem to have done them much harm. Those who swear they'll never use Ryanair will probably claim this fiasco is part of the reason why. Yet they probably weren't ever going to use them anyway.

And those that do use them, and see the benefits of doing so (if you stick to the rules), will keep using them.

over 3 years ago

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Sam

great article

over 3 years ago

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Enda Guinan

Classifying the Ryanair incident as a 'fail' suggests that you may not fully understand their brand. This example you've given is pretty much a 'win' from their perspective (someone doesn't do what they clearly ask people to do - and has the audacity to whinge about it - legitimate target!).

In fact, much as I loathe Ryanair, this example makes me warm to them. The customer isn't always right and sometimes they are a pain in the ass. Calling them out - especially for a brand such as Ryanair - can be highly entertaining.

Not all brands have to be vanilla to 'win'.

over 3 years ago

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Tom

11th social media fail. Using an out of date twitter logo in an email about social media fails...

over 3 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Great list.

I'm baffled by Ryanair. I can't think of any other company that's built a successful business on contempt for its customers.

I really hope that the bad karma they're building up comes back to bite them on the arse.

Everyone loves cheap. Do you have to be cheap, nasty, condescending, dishonest... and gloat about it?

over 3 years ago

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mari gordon

Andy Williams - am I missing something, why was using Steven Gerrard 'always going to bring about ... abuse'?

over 3 years ago

Andy Williams

Andy Williams, Digital Marketing Manager at Koozai

Hi Mari,

Steven Gerrard is a big figure in football and is worshiped by Liverpool fans.

The idea of a Gerrard hashtag may be a great way of getting his fans to engage with him on Twitter, however using Twitter is also a very public platform and it isn't just Liverpool fans who can use the said hashtag.

The nature of football is that there is rivalry, give fans of other clubs (using Twitter) an avenue to abuse a player from another club and it is always going to lead to the idea being spoilt.

Lets face it fans aren't just going to send cheeky tweets are they, they are bound to be abusive.

Add to that the fuel of Gerrard being involved in that bar brawl and Adidas were asking for trouble. If you are going to use a sportperson for one of these exercises you need to be careful. Use someone who is seen in a different light, who isn't going to provoke a reaction from other fans etc.

over 3 years ago

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Amy Fowler

@Doug Kessler,

I've never found Ryanair to be nasty, condescending, or dishonest.

On the contrary, the staff have always been friendly, helpful and most importantly, efficient.

I also don't see what's dishonest about their practices. Yes, there's additional charges to the initial price, but you're well aware of the total you'll pay before you pay anything. And *most* companies of this nature (hotels, flights, holidays etc), do this to an extent.

What's more, most of these charges are easily avoided.

If they start charging for toilet use though, I may start to think otherwise.

over 3 years ago

David Moth

David Moth, Editor & Head of Social at EconsultancyStaff

@Amy, I agree that the staff are perfectly nice, but the company's business practices are plain nasty. Unless you think charging £60 to print off a boarding pass is reasonable ;)

over 3 years ago

Anna Lewis

Anna Lewis, Google Analytics Analyst at Koozai

How did I miss this post? Great examples! I think everyone starting out in social media should read as many posts like this as they can so that they have a higher chance of not making a similar mistake.

I did enjoy the Waitrose campaign, ingenious, even if some of the comments may not have been what they were looking for.

over 3 years ago

Laura Phillips

Laura Phillips, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

I feel the same as Anna!

I recently had a major problem with SEAT (UK) cars after they emptied my bank account by accident. After being passed from pillar to post on the phone I tried to raise a response via Twitter and Facebook. They took days to answer and their answers were pure lip service. Useless.

It's so easy to go wrong with social media and open up a world of pain for your company. It seems to me that too many companies won't invest in staff to look after their social media, instead tagging it onto the job of existing employees because they 'use Facebook'.

over 3 years ago

Carl Duncker

Carl Duncker, Digital Marketing Consultant at Maverick Digital Media

tbh, if I was following Katie Price I would know that she'd sell anything - or I'd be so hurt I'd unfollow and move on to Nadine Dorris

over 3 years ago

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Trevor Duncan

Oh my, straight from brain to the page with no filter in between. I don't claim to be a social networking guru, but some of these just lack taste. Thanks for putting them altogether in one place to help us realize what NOT to do on our twitter feeds!

over 3 years ago

Clint Fischerstrom

Clint Fischerstrom, Webmanager at Phone House

The Swedish tourist board won a gold lion at cannes for their twitter campaign. Hardly a failure. It proves how a country can show its policies on freedom of speech instead of just talking about like the US has been doing over the years.

about 3 years ago

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