When Viral Marketing Attacks: 9 Epic Viral Fails





          

Viral Marketing is a tricky thing, and like fire and government it is powerful servant but a fearful master. While companies scramble to “go viral” and produce the next overnight web sensation, the road is fraught with danger and the gutter littered with epic fails, here are 9 of my favorite examples of viral marketing failure (with one bonus at the end).

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theater

The most famous (and ridiculous) recent example of viral marketing FAILs is the Great Boston Bomb Scare of 2007 ™. In an attempt to create hype around its upcoming movie, advertisers behind Aqua Teen Hunger Force paid some weird dudes to hang sticky LED signs all over the city. The city freaked out, thinking they were bombs and shut everything down, arrested the kids and fined Cartoon Network a whole bunch of money. But at least now it has its own Wikipedia page.

Ashanti Death Threats

Failing R&B singer Ashanti thought it would be a good idea to promote her new album by launching a viral marketing campaign that allowed people to sent their friends death threats. Yes you read that right, death threats. Amazing idea really.

Read more here.

Chevy’s Create Your Own Tahoe Commercial

Chevy created a user generated advertising platform for a campaign for the Tahoe. Things went wrong when users started making ads critical of the big car maker’s fuel efficiency and environmental friendliness. Commercials typically included stuff like this:

Hey, 2,325 U.S. kids have died, 16,653 have been injured, and up to $2 trillion will be spent to keep our oil supply safe. If you support the troops you’ll get out there and use some of it! Chevy Tahoe: Don’t let all that blood go to waste.™

You can read more about it here.

Virgin’s B3ta Competition

Virgin started a contest on the popular designer website for users to create images of what would happen if you said yes to everything. What Virgin ended up getting was a bunch of offensive pictures of Richard Branson. The guys behind the site had this to say about it all:

“Yep, they pulled the challenge. Yep, they were told before they opened it exactly how it would play out. Yep, they asked us to delete it. Yep, I think the whole thing is funny.”

Read more about this failure here.

Starbucks Free Iced Coffee

Sometimes the campaign doesn’t have to fail to turn against its creators, sometimes it just has to work too well, like Starbuck’s free iced coffee for friends and family efforts. The coffee chain sought to entice friends and family of employees to come into the store for free iced coffee, but when word got out about the offer and the respones was bigger than expected, corporate headquarters nixed the promotion. Details on this one here.

Dove & Axe Mashup

Unilever’s success with socially responsible Dove viral ads found resistance when a Youtube user made a mashup of the Dove ads and some of Unilever’s Axe commercials, which many consider sexist. Axe ads were used to show how on one hand the company objectifies women, while on the other, it pretends to care about the daughters of America.

alliwantforxmasisapsp.com

When real, authentic organic viral growth just seems too difficult, companies periodically resort to other tactics to generate online buzz about them, like Sony tried to do for its PSP. The electronics company hired an outside agency to create a fake astrotuff blog called “All I want for Christmas is a PSP” to help sell more of the hand held media devices. When they were outed they faced huge public backlash. AdAge covered the lesssons marketers should take away from this debacle.

Working Families for Wal-Mart

As if Sony’s epic fail didn’t teach the PR world enough, Walmart hired firm Edelman who created an astrotuff blog allegedly written by average working families to counteract the bad public image the mega chain has suffered from for years. When the blog was outed as a fake it further damaged Walmart (and Edelman’s) shaky reputation. Learn more about that one here.

Sarah Marshall

An attempt to market a new Judd Apatow movie led some misguided agency to post signs all over various cities proclaiming their hatred for a poor girl named Sarah Marshall. Well, it turns out, Sarah Marshalls do really exist in the real world. Oops, their B. Read about a few disgruntled Sarahs here.

What Viral Marketing Could Turn Into

Lets end on a little humor (as if there were none in the above examples).


          

If you liked this post, don't forget to subscribe to my RSS feed or my email newsletter so you never miss the science.

{ 9 comments }

Space Cowboy October 9, 2008 at 11:26 am

It disgusts me when corporations have such a lack of internet savvy.

maria October 9, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Great post, Dan. I especially enjoyed the Unilever bit.

Robert J October 9, 2008 at 12:37 pm

I Love the fact that you claim the Aqua Teen Hunger Force campaign was a failure when it created mainstream news headlines around the world. Probably tens of millions of dollars worth of airtime, for the cost of a few light brights and some local hippies – I call that a genius investment. The controversy also played perfectly to the antiestablishment alternative southpark watching demographic it was aimed at. Also you mistake this campaign as a viral marketing campaign, it was not. It was a Guerrilla marketing campaign that turned viral after a few inconceivably stupid people mistook a child’s toy for a bomb. I say 10/10 for the campaign and 1/10 for your understanding of viral marketing. YOU are still virally marketing the movie almost a year after the campaign by writing about it on your blog. I may get it out tonight and watch it, thanks for reminding me!

SpudgeBoy October 9, 2008 at 1:07 pm

I have to agree with Robert J. The Aqua Teen Hunger Force viral marketing campaign was one of the most successful in history. They friggin’ shut down Boston. Jeebus, Microsoft would pay billions for that kind of press.

Dave October 9, 2008 at 1:48 pm

It’s fascinating that there’s such a wide spectrum of FAILs here: some advertisers lied (or just weren’t truthful) on the web, some weren’t as ready to give free reign to web users as they thought they were, some did cool real world stuff that really irked a relatively small group.

I’m more of a web guy than a marketing guy, so I’m curious: is there significant value to the negative press that some of these companies got? Is the idea of “as long as they’re talking about you” valid in cases like this?

ff October 9, 2008 at 1:54 pm

“Hi, I’m Dan Zarrella. I’m a social & viral marketing scientist”

FAIL

Kevin OKeefe October 10, 2008 at 12:04 am

Thanks for reference to my post on the Walmart fake blog fiasco. You’ve got a great blog, so in all seriousness it’s an honor to be mentioned by you. Keep up the great work.

Phil October 10, 2008 at 8:09 am

weird, this sort of thing was in my mind this morning – do you have a camera to my sole?

Seth February 11, 2009 at 3:25 pm

I would have to agree with Robert J. The Adult Swim viral marketing campaign worked better than they could have imagined. Definitely not a fail.

{ 3 trackbacks }