In the modern era of mobiles devices and social media, any brand can instantly become a viral sensation — or a viral nightmare — and it oftentimes doesn’t take much for either one to become a reality.
Some campaigns can be (thought to be) well-thought out and planned, aiming to strike that “just right” emotional cord with a large audience and hopefully going down into commercial lore as one of the funniest, wittiest, or creative.
But all too often, brands miss. Completely.
Here are seven brands that went viral for all the wrong reasons.
Uber started 2017 off in the same fashion it ended 2016: with its head down.
After finishing 2016 with just under $3 billion in losses, Uber faced even more problems as the year turned and the new President of the United States took office.
Not long after being inaugurated, Donald Trump announced his controversial immigration ban that targeted predominately Muslim countries’ citizens from entering the United States including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The U.S. government also revoked more than 100,00 visas from foreigners throughout the world. Many taxi and ride-sharing drivers are immigrants, including immigrants from the restricted countries.
In response, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance called for a temporary strike for rides to and from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City for an hour. Then, Uber announced via Twitter that it had turned off surge pricing at JFK during the protest.
The move, which was made to illustrate that Uber was not trying to profit from the strike, was soon considered a strikebreaking move that favored Trump’s travel ban, and the #DeleteUber ridesharing boycott was on.
The next day, Lyft had more iOS downloads in the United States than Uber for the first time ever. Lyft became more popular and visible too; it improved to a Top 5 spot on the free apps list ahead of the most popular social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube.
And that was far from the end of Uber’s bad year.
Less than a month later, a former Uber engineer published a scathing blog post on her personal website describing the big problems Uber had internally, specifically with sexism and lack of leadership and accountability. She detailed how her supervisor had been very forthcoming with sexual conversation and “trying to get me to have sex with him.” She detailed how the existence of sexism at Uber went far beyond just her story; it was rooted deep in the culture at Uber, and the stories were far more common than she ever imagined.
There were also legal issues that hit the company, including a lawsuit dealing with the use of intellectual property, a federal inquiry into a software tool that allowed Uber sidestep law enforcement, and claims that Uber operated illegally in Oregon, among a number of other accusations.
Oh yeah, and the CEO also got into an argument with an Uber driver about earnings in a video that soon became public and definitely further soiled Uber’s image.
It wasn’t long before CEO Travis Kalanick was ousted from the company he helped build, and a full makeover of a rotten company culture was underway.
Then, most recently, in November, it was made public that Uber did not report a data breach by hackers in 2016 who stole data of more than 57 million people, both drivers and passengers of the ride-sharing service. The hackers stole names, driver’s license numbers, email addresses, and phone numbers.
Luckily the worst parts of the data hack, including the coverup, fall on embattled former CEO Kalanick, and not new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi who said none of it should have happened but that he “will not make excuses for it.”
Uber is one of the most popular, highly valued private companies in the world, but it would certainly like to put 2017 in the rearview.
2. U.S. Department of Education
Based on the background of Betsy DeVos — the Donald Trump-appointed Secretary of Education who never attended a public school, nor enrolled her own children in public school — and the way many Americans vocally opposed her throughout her appointment-approval process, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before this one happened.
Less than a week after being confirmed to the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Department of Education tweeted a picture of American author and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, accompanied by a quote by him about the importance of education.
Problem was, the quote in the tweet was attributed to a “W.E.B. DeBois” — and the Twitter World was quick to notice.
Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life. – W.E.B. DeBois pic.twitter.com/Re4cWkPSFA
— US Dept of Education (@usedgov) February 12, 2017
Among the many ironies in the misspelling (i.e., the Department of Education published the tweet, the tweet was about the importance of education, the quote was that of a scholar and author, etc.) was the apology tweet that was published following several hours of criticism.
The now-deleted apology said: “Post updated – our deepest apologizes for the earlier typo.”
The Department of Education followed up that tweet with another, correctly spelled the word apology: “Post updated – our deepest apologies for the earlier typo.”
3. United Airlines
One of the worst public relations nightmares of the year comes at the hands of United Airlines by way of cell phone video and images of a bloody passenger being physically removed from a plane.
Turns out, United asked all loaded passengers if any four of them that wanted to volunteer to get off the current flight (and receive $800 credit for their troubles) and make new arrangements so that they could make room for four United employees on the now-overbooked flight. When no one volunteered, United forcibly removed at least one passenger, Dr. David Dao of Kentucky.
Cell phone footage shows security officers donning “POLICE” jackets (which were later considered mislabeled by Chicago’s Aviation Department) dragging Dao out of his chair and down the aisle with blood streaming from his mouth and looking dazed as onlooking passengers screamed in horror.
— Jayse D. Anspach (@JayseDavid) April 10, 2017
The aftermath? A broken nose, two knocked-out teeth, and a concussion for Dr. Dao.
For the airline, who admitted responsibility for the mishap: four Chicago Department of Aviation officers were immediately placed on leave in April — two of whom were eventually fired — for mishandling “a non-threatening situation that resulted in a physically violent and forceful removal of a passenger,” and a P.R. debacle of epic proportions that included United’s stock dropping 4 percent in the first week and its market value being reduced by $1 billion.
This was the third P.R. issue for United in 2017 — and all within a two-month span — following its barring of two girls from a flight for violation of the dress code because of their leggings, and a separate situation involving a scorpion that got on a flight headed into the United States and stung a passenger before being disposed of.
As bad as the situation seemed, it didn’t take long for United to bounce back. Stock prices rose higher than they were before the incidents, and United seemed to make right with Dr. Dao, who said he would likely sue the airline before being paid out an undisclosed amount in the wake of the incident.
Adidas’ P.R. nightmare could have totally been avoided with the simple help of a proofreader, most likely.
With hope to evoke the proud emotions of accomplishment, satisfaction, and dedication, Adidas sent a congratulatory email to its customer base, including participants of the Boston Marathon, after the race.
Unfortunately for Adidas, it backfired in the worst way.
The email message read: “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!”
This is obviously not optimal messaging for a race that was hit by a terrorist attack in 2013 that killed three people and injured more than 260.
As a result, many customers fired back at Adidas, typically offering screenshots of the email in their mailbox, reminding them that their message was clearly off-mark.
— Mike Denison (@mikd33) April 18, 2017
It didn’t result in the crashing of its stock, and it’s likely the majority of customers forgave Adidas for the painful blunder, but it could have all been avoided with the right preparation.
Adidas soon after apologized:
“We deeply apologize for our mistake. The Boston Marathon is one of the most inspirational sporting events in the world. Every year we’re reminded of the hope and resiliency of the running community at this event.”
5. Kendall Jenner & Pepsi
Probably the most popular viral fail of 2017 came at the expense of two of the biggest brands out there today, Pepsi and Kendall Jenner.
In an attempt to convey “unity, peace, and understanding,” Pepsi published a video ad on YouTube that imitates something America has seen a lot of lately: protests.
Many critics of the video made the comparison of the Pepsi-created protest in the video to the Black Lives Matter protests that have been taking place throughout the nation over the last few years, specifically in response to the killings of a number of minorities at the hands of law enforcement.
The ad consists of a bunch of young, attractive “protesters” who are a variety of ethnicities and races holding signs about peace and “joining the conversation.” Many of the facial expressions of the protesters are not that of pain, defeat, or frustration, but rather smiles accompanied by upbeat attitudes, leading many to believe the ad was insensitive and completely off-mark in terms of the real protests going on.
Those critics are likely correct.
As the New York Times put it, the ad was, as many activists say, “precisely the opposite of their real-world experience of protesting police brutality,” and not even Jenner could fix that.
At the climax of the more-than-two-and-a-half-minute ad, Jenner offers a police officer a can of Pepsi, which he accepts and drinks, and the protesters cheer in approval. It also cannot be ignored that, despite the protests comparison to the Black Lives Matter protests, Jenner is a white woman. This only enhances the fact that this Pepsi ad massively missed its mark.
Pepsi didn’t wait long to apologize. After enduring intense backlash for the ad that was labeled “tone deaf,” especially on Twitter and other social media networks, Pepsi pulled the commercial despite spending millions on it.
One industry executive told People Magazine that the commercial likely cost between $2 million to $5 million to make, and it was likely that the overall campaign was budgeted for about $100 million.
That’s quite the oversight in planning, but Pepsi, too, would (mostly) bounce back from this bad press before 2017 even ended.
It doesn’t mean the brand has been in the clear, though. It was the punchline of many jokes in late-night TV when it first launched in April, and it still gets brought up in jokes to this day.
Pepsi and Jenner would both love to take this one back.
In an attempt to further solidify its association with positive body image, Dove launched an advertising campaign called “Real Beauty Bottles” that rolled out six different Dove body-wash bottles and claimed “beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.” Each bottle was intended to translate into a woman’s body type.
There was a tall, skinny bottle, a wide, hourglass-shaped bottle, a short, plump bottle, and so on. While it was trying to further advance the message that body type doesn’t truly matter, and everyone has the potential to feel and be beautiful, it was another sure miss in messaging, and many current and potential customers let Dove know.
People claimed they didn’t need to be reminded of body shapes while in the shower, just like they always are constantly reminded of throughout everyday trials and tribulations.
This is so awful. So you can contemplate how far outside the ideal your body is even in the shower. https://t.co/UAPlwkFz0t
— Heidi N Moore (@moorehn) May 8, 2017
It wasn’t long before it became a long-running Twitter joke/meme.
— rachel handler (@rachel_handler) May 8, 2017
thanks Dove but I already have a body wash that matches my natural curves 🙂 pic.twitter.com/IIkKAn0LjQ
— Tim Federle (@TimFederle) May 8, 2017
And that wasn’t even the end of the marketing mishaps for Dove in 2017.
Later in October, Dove ran what many people considered to be a racist ad on Facebook. It was a three-second video with a black woman removing her top and turning into a happy-faced white woman.
For a company that has put so much emphasis on universal beauty and embracing ourselves for who we truly are, regardless of differences, this ad was another one it would like to forget. They deleted it from their Facebook account the next day.
7. Papa John’s
In response to low sales numbers, Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter blamed the NFL and the protests of its players who kneel during the National Anthem — and how NFL leadership handled the protests — for the bad performance of the pizza chain that is a major sponsor and advertiser of the league.
“The NFL has hurt us,” Schnatter said on an earnings call. “We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this.”
Two weeks later, the Papa John’s brand backpedaled on the statements from its earnings call with a series of tweets claiming it believes “in the right to protest inequality and support the players’ movement to create a new platform for change.”
The third and final tweet in the series said the brand is open to ideas from all to think of a way to work with the NFL and come up with a way to protest inequality and also honor the National Anthem. Then it condemned neo-Nazis in a blatant and much-needed way.
We will work with the players and league to find a positive way forward. Open to ideas from all. Except neo-nazis — 🖕those guys. (3/3)
— Papa John’s Pizza (@PapaJohns) November 15, 2017
Still, for many Americans, it may likely be too late for Papa John’s to recover from this blow as quickly as United Airlines was able to from its passenger-removal nightmare.
Schnatter reportedly lost $70 million in one day following the mishap, according to Forbes. This was after achieving an all-time high for stock shares in December 2016 and Schnatter being listed on the Forbes’ list of the World’s Billionaires in March 2017.
It wasn’t long before he fell off that list and Papa John’s lost a quarter of its market share in the pizza-restaurant industry.
There can be a fine line between good, catchy marketing and other marketing themes people may find offensive for their general context or unintended message. It’s obviously best not to walk that line as marketers, especially when we’re talking about issues as sensitive as race or sexuality, and much of the challenges that come with controversial issues like them
More Marketing Mistakes to Avoid Here:
- 5 Content Marketing Mistakes You Should Avoid to Earn More Links
- 9 Types of Content That Will Always Fail
- 6 Influencer Marketing Mistakes That Waste Your Budget
Subscribe to SEJ
Get our weekly newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!