Creating an ad that goes viral is seen as the promised land for marketers. And certainly, when everything goes right, viral marketing can expose a brand to a whole new magnitude of fans. But what happens when the marketers get it wrong, and viral content goes against its intended purpose?
You may have heard some people say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. While we understand where that line comes from, we disagree with its basic premise. Branding is important precisely because it frames your company as standing for something you believe in. When your brand runs away from you, you’ve lost the power to control how it’s perceived by the world.
Take for example a recent campaign from alternative fashion design label Rag & Bone. The brand created a provocative ad in which a model stands next to a vintage Porsche that gets annihilated by a concrete beam. Clearly, it was meant to be edgy and generate conversation. But the brand didn’t take into account how upset people would get that a no-longer-made classic Porsche was destroyed for no reason. With the help of some car bloggers, the Youtube version of the ad now has a 98% thumbs down rating, which has to be some kind of record.
Sometimes, viral campaigns gone wrong happen due to pure confusion on part of the marketing staff. Last year, for example, when the video of football player Ray Rice hitting his wife surfaced, an outpouring of support against domestic violence on Twitter came with the hashtag #WhyIStayed. Turning a completely deaf ear, DiGiorno Pizza tweeted “#WhyIStayed You had pizza.”, making them the subject of ridicule all over the Internet. They later had to admit they had no idea what the hashtag meant when they used it.
And sometimes, a campaign can mean well and still rub the audience the wrong way. Earlier this year, Starbucks began a diversity campaign with the slogan “Race Together”. A part of this campaign involved baristas writing the phrase on customers’ coffee cups, in an attempt to inspire productive conversations about race in their coffee shops. But all it managed to create was confusion among customers, which led to plenty of ridicule of the #RaceTogether hashtag on Twitter, including more made up hashtags such as “Malcolm Xpresso” and “I have a cream”.
There are two takeaways here: before you share any piece of content, know your audience, and know the context within which you’re communicating. If you do happen to create something that gets taken the wrong way, you’ll have to ride it out—it’s in the Internet’s hands now. Be earnest, apologize if necessary, and keep looking forward. One positive thing about the insane amount of online content created every day is that today’s viral topic is usually old news by tomorrow.