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 makers 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

Unilevers success with socially responsible Dove viral ads found resistance when a Youtube user made a mashup of the Dove ads and some of Unilevers 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.


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 Edelmans) 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).