Nine worst social media fails of 2009... thus far

Social media has taken the marketing world by storm. Major agencies and internal divisions are hosting think tank sessions to try and come up with witty ideas to market their products and drive customer loyalty.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

Social media has taken the marketing world by storm. Major agencies and internal divisions are hosting think tank sessions to try and come up with witty ideas to market their products and drive customer loyalty. Some of the ideas they come up with  are great. But others, let's face it, are serious thuds. Let's take a look at nine of the worst social media marketing campaigns  so far in 2009 (in no particular order):

House M.D.

When actor Kal Penn decided to leave the popular network dramedy to take a role with the Obama administration, the show needed to find a clever -- and quick -- way to get rid of the character of Dr. Lawrence Kutner. The show opted to kill him off via suicide and left fans with a lot of questions. What does this have to do with social media? Rather than running from the backlash of offing such a popular character, Fox embraced it by creating an online altar where fans could go leave memorial messages for Kutner. It was their way of trying to maintain viewer loyalty. However, it backfired, with many fans insisting that the altar and flippant social media attempt was insensitive regarding the topic of suicide. Fox has since pulled the altar from its Web site.

Next: Quiznos -->


Quiznos has been known for some desperate marketing stunts in the past, but the recent "2 Girls, 1 Sandwich" viral video is likely one of the worst. The tacky video which takes off as a spoof of a porn meme created so much negative reaction that Quiznos officially denied having any affiliation with the video, stating that it did not authorize it nor pay for any placement. The jury is still out as to whether or not this is a Quiznos marketing fail or if it really was produced without their sanctioning, regardless, Quiznos' loss of brand control has made a lot of people think twice before ordering a sub.

Next: Motrin -->


The most interesting fail with the Motrin situation, from my perspective, is how the backlash was handled. While the offending situation occurred in late 2008, the backlash has carried into 2009. Motrin posted some videos on its Web site which claimed that moms who do "babywearing" might need Motrin because let's face it, kids can be heavy. However, it's tongue-in-cheek approach to this add enraged a legion of "mommybloggers" who found the ad offensive, stating that it implied that mothers resent their children for causing them pain. Motrin immediately pulled the ad and issued a formal, very professional apology, but the backlog continued. While Motrin took some hits (though none in sales, I imagine) the majority of the fail here was on the part of the "mommybloggers," who inadvertently rebranded themselves as an irrational lynch mob.

Next: Denny's -->


Denny's Super Bowl ad was interesting. It showed a banana-type character called Nannerpuss dancing atop a stack of pancakes, in a way to show that other comparable restaurant breakfasts are silly and sub-par to the Grand Slam. The commercial itself was kind of funny and Nannerpuss in some ways endearing, but the restaurant's attempt to create a customer loyalty campaign through Nannerpuss failed miserably. Attempts to create a Nannerpuss following via social networks (i.e. Twitter) were a complete fail. Denny's had the right idea, but creating some sort of storyline or understandable to the Nannerpuss ad (and its sister ads) would've done well to create more brand loyalty. They should've stuck with giving out the free Grand Slam breakfasts rather than sinking money into the silly banana.

Next: Jack in the Box -->

Jack in the Box

After killing off its Jack character several years ago, the fast food establishment's brand went from mediocre to zero in a short period of time. Finally, a handful of years later, the restaurant got smart and invested in bringing the character back to life in a bigger and better way. Jack was a leader. Jack was snarky. Jack was full of personality. Jack breathed life back into the restaurant and brought it out of "only good at 2 a.m." to "hey let's grab a quick lunch." Then earlier this year the company decided to do some teasers around the health and well-being of Jack. He was in an accident and was believed to be in a coma. Television and Internet ads ran showing Jack in the hospital hooked up to tubes and machines, with his employees at his bedside wondering his fate. The restaurant created a "get well" presence where fans of Jack could leave messages. Was this a costly attempt at measuring brand reach? Who knows. But two things happened: Customers were offended by the insensitivity of the campaign and others thought the company was just stupid for even considering killing off Jack. Eventually Jack woke up after it was revealed that an employee turned rogue and wanted to take over. With hope, the backlash woke Jack in the Box up from its marketing common sense coma, too.

Next: Skittles -->


Touted as genius by some social marketing pundits, the Skittles Twitter trick was a significant case study for a social media thud. The candy company turned its home page into a Twitter search feed for, you guessed it, Skittles. When the campaign first launched, the Skittles campaign was one of the hottest trending topics on Twitter. Social media bloggers (not this one) were exclaiming that Skittles "GETS IT!" but all they did was turn their home page into a constantly revolving loop of people saying "OMG SKITTLES LOVES TWITTER." It almost seemed to be an ad campaign for Twitter versus one to enhance the Skittles brand. There was no real community outreach (it was incredibly passive) and it came to be pretty self-centered in the first weeks. However, Skittles broke one of the first cardinal rules of social media -- it led with a tool and didn't reach into its community. The Skittles home page is still its Twitter feed, however it's slightly improved, only because no one cares about the stunt anymore. But it still isn't engagement. And there's no way to control the content. I could Twitter troll and say horrible things about Skittles all day long and feed into their Web presence. Fail, Skittles. Absolute fail.

Next: Pizza Hut -->

Pizza Hut

I suppose if Jack in the Box and Denny's got into the social media game, so should Pizza Hut. Last month the pizza restaurant issued a press release stating that it was seeking a Twitter intern (aka "Twintern") over the summer to manage its Twitter presence. A representative for the company stated that "The successful applicant will speak fluent OMG and LOL and correctly use the terms DM (direct message), RT (retweet) and # (hashtag)." (Note: A representative from Pizza Hut reported that this language was not in the official announcement). There are few things that were wrong with this little stunt. One, if Pizza Hut were serious about using Twitter to boost its brand, it should not have belittled the way that people and businesses communicate via the service. Not to mention, it is a global company, and encouraging such communication would not resonate well worldwide. Second, why would you want an intern who does not understand your business from the core being your face to the world? That's a risky endeavor for any business. Finally, it's unclear what Pizza Hut was trying to accomplish with this announcement, other than to say to the world that they are hip and know Twitter, but all they did was prove they did not. They should stick with pizza.

Next: Burger King -->

Burger King

The "Whopper Sacrifice" campaign baffled me from the beginning. Here's the deal: Unfriend 10 friends, and get a burger. The teaser for the campaign read something like this: “What would you do for a free WHOPPER? Would you insult an elected official? Would you do a naked handstand? Would you go so far as to turn your back on friendship?” My immediate reaction, of course, was "Would I insult my friend to save $3? Probably not." However, according to EaterLA, more than 230,000 friends were un-friended during this Whopper promotion -- which means only 23,000 people participated. What's crazy about it is that while usually one can unfriend people discreetly on Facebook, the Whopper Sacrifice application tells people you unfriend why you did it -- for a burger. I'm not sure if this campaign was a fail for Burger King (the app was eventually disabled by Facebook) or a fail for friendship, but it certainly didn't do much for Burger Kings brand. Or Whopper sales.

Next: CNN / Ashton Kutcher -->

CNN / Ashton Kutcher

I don't expect much from Ashton Kutcher other than mediocre acting, but I expected slightly more from CNN. Last month the tabloid favorite and the news network embarked on a Twitter race to see who could be the first to reach 1 million followers. It was a tight race but the winner was... Ashton Kutcher. Overall the stunt had a charity benefit - Kutcher was to donate 10,000 mosquito bed nets for World Malaria Day, but really both parties used the opportunity to try and game the Twitter system. Kutcher is a personality who doesn't owe his fans anything. CNN, however, tries to be a trusted, unbiased news network, therefore it was almost shocking to watch it take part in such a blatant stunt. To make this story even stranger, for some reason many people who followed Kutcher were unable to unfollow him for a while in the days after the stunt. Which makes me wonder if Twitter had a part in this, too? Either way, while I was never following Kutcher I had been following CNN prior to the campaign. Not anymore.

In the end... What is to be learned here? Well, don't lead with tools. Don't think that your brand is above the risks and backlash of social media. When plotting a social media campaign, truly think about what you want your end result to be, and fully examine everything that could possibly go wrong. Word-of-mouth marketing is a fantastic thing when you know how to leverage it. But if you lose control of your brand, the disasters are almost endless. Let these brands' failures be a lesson.

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