If you ask any business owner if they want to “go viral,” you will undoubtedly get an answer like this.


Going viral isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, as these seven viral marketing flops demonstrate

1. Forgetfulness: Forgetting that viral can happen even with private content

Starbucks has done a lot of things right in the online marketing arena. They have established a brand that has an established its place in American culture. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t make any costly mistakes along the way. One mistake was forgetting that even private emails can go viral.

In 2006, Starbucks wanted to provide coupons for a free iced coffee to select employees by email. The email was shared to more people than intended. Flabbergasted at what happened, Starbucks canceled the promotion. That didn’t stop someone from launching a $114 million lawsuit against the company claiming fraud.


2. Sloth: Not serving as an active gatekeeper of your negative PR

Chevrolet actually had a great idea that combined product placement with crowdsourcing. In 2006, the company bought an episode of “The Apprentice” and then invited viewers of the show to build an ad for the Chevy Tahoe with some tickets as a prize.

The company left this open to any and everyone. Over 21,000 ads were entered.  Chevrolet, unfortunately, didn’t do a lot of quality control because more than a few of those ads focused on Chevrolet as a company destroying the environment. Since participants were encouraged to share this message, this gave Chevy’s negative press a larger platform to go viral.

3. Adultery: Be careful who you do business with & be transparent about that relationship

McDonald’s decided to do business with GM to promote the Hummer, so it had the brilliant idea of giving away 42 million toy Hummers. What’s the harm in that? Plenty. Parents and environmental critics slammed the company for trying to sneak in their marketing through a child’s toy, especially after several concerns had already been raised about the product’s dangerous impact on the environment.

The Hummer, a civilian version of the military Humvee has been criticized for being a gas-guzzler and a risk for higher property damage. The story doesn’t stop there because McDonald’s responded to the controversy with a blog. The only problem?  The dialogue didn’t happen because negative comments didn’t appear on the site.

Toy Hummer

Contributed by gadgetdude on Flickr

4. Ignorance: Be careful about what you say & who you say it to

Marketing isn’t just about choosing the right word. It’s about understanding what those words mean in the words of your target audience. Virgin Australia Airlines, formerly Virgin Blue, learned that the hard way in 2007 when they tried their “chuck a sickie” campaign. A “sickie”, in Austrailian slang, is “calling in sick” when you aren’t sick. Beside confusion around the term “sickie” outside of the slang usage of the term, there was a problem with a company actively promoting “calling in sick” to avoid work. The ad was pulled in 29 minutes.

5. Stealth: Be aware that your marketing can go too close for comfort

A marketing company hired by Toyota, Saatchi & Saatchi decided to join in on the “pranking” challenge by inviting people to set up a “stalker” for them as part of their “The Other You” campaign. In this 2008 campaign, the person on the receiving end of the prank would get “stalked” by a fictitious character. They would receive texts, emails, social media messages that contained personal information.

At the end of the 5-day “stalking” campaign, a video would be revealing the plank. Unfortunately, the downside is that it became all too real for one contestant, Amber Duick, who sued Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi for 10 million dollars, claiming that it ruined her life. Toyota argued that website of the advertising campaign exempted them from any request for damages. The judge disagreed and allowed the case to move forward.

In all of these cases, the damage from the viral marketing campaigns overshadowed the potential gains. While all of these campaigns were unique and creative, they should have been balanced with oversight to ensure they achieved their intended goal. No advertising or marketing campaign is perfect. The more creativity you apply to marketing, the greater the risk that something bad (or at least embarrassing) can happen. Whenever you have a cool idea for a marketing campaign, think through the potential consequences before you move forward.