Going viral is every marketer’s dream — but sudden fame isn’t all roses.
Millions of views, thousands of new users, and a brand name as recognizable as Kony 2012: that’s the dream, right?
For many brands, going viral can drive real profit, not to mention increasing brand recognition and engaging a new audience of potential customers. For others, though, virality is at best a cheap avenue to five seconds of fame, and at worst can precipitate the complete discreditation of your brand while opening the floodgates to a stampede of Internet trolls. Going viral opens you up to the possibility of becoming a punchline — meme-ified and mocked rather than “controversial” and “edgy”.
While increasing your brand presence and creating unique, engaging content are both goals that you should invest in, be careful not to jump on trends simply to gain virality. You might just find yourself like one of these five brands — each of which went viral, but not in the way they’d hoped.
Hoping to hop onto the wave of activism sweeping the country in 2017, Pepsi launched an ad starring Kendall Jenner, in which “sharing a Pepsi” results in political harmony and universal goodwill. The ad immediately went viral — but not for its positive message. Roundly criticized for being insensitive to the Black Lives Matter movement, the ad was taken down within a day by Pepsi. The company apologized and Jenner said she felt like her life “was over”.
This advertisement serves as a sharp warning against latching onto charged political movements for personal gain. By reducing an emotionally fraught political moment to a cheesy video, Pepsi ended up appearing clueless and insensitive.
2. Kony 2012
Known for spawning the “white savior industrial complex”, Kony 2012 is an example of both extremely adroit marketing, and the backlash that can come from it. The Kony 2012 video was viewed and shared by millions, and high school campuses across the country were swept up in the Invisible Children movement, which aimed to rescue child soldiers in Uganda from Joseph Kony.
Today, however, Kony 2012 has been widely discredited, and is now viewed as a prime example of “slacktivism” at its worst. By reducing a complex national struggle to a vision of one “bad guy”, Kony 2012 mobilized teenagers and young adults around the nation — and garnered the skepticism of their elders. While Kony 2012 did raise millions of dollars for Invisible Children and met its goal of making Kony “famous”, the Ugandan conflict continues today, and many now view the movement as an Internet sensation rather than a successful example of activism in action.
3. DiGiorno Pizza
In 2014, a video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancé resulted in thousands of women taking to Twitter to open up about their own experiences with domestic violence. The hashtag associated with the incident — #WhyIStayed — was meant to combat victim-blaming. DiGiorno Pizza saw the viral hashtag and was quick to act — maybe a little too quick, given the backlash that followed.
The pizza company tweeted: “#whyistayed You had pizza.” and immediately garnered the attention of the hashtag’s followers. DiGiorno was criticized for making light of an incredibly serious issue, and the company quickly apologized, saying “A million apologies. Did not read what the hashtag was about before posting.” Moral of the story? Check what trend you’re hopping onto before going all in.
Epicurious still hasn’t fully recovered from its Boston Marathon Twitter debacle. Capitalizing on the Boston Marathon bombing, the recipe site took to Twitter and offered up a bowl of “breakfast energy” as a solution to the tragedy. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the company added, “In honor of Boston and New England, may we suggest: whole-grain cranberry scones!”.
While joining the conversation around trending events is often a good idea, shamelessly using tragedies as a marketing ploy is not.
In 2015 IHOP came under fire for its tweet showing a stack of pancakes that said “flat but has a GREAT personality”. The attempted joke fell completely flat (no pun intended) and attracted the ire of the body positivity movement. Sex may sell, but be careful about using sexual innuendo that could be construed as critical to a group of people (or simply in poor taste!).
Why These Fails Should Make Small Brands Wary of Virality
For brands that have already established a large base of loyal followers, a bit of negative virality fades (usually). But for smaller brands who have not yet established their public personas, hopping onto a trend just for the sake of viral appeal can land you in hot water.
Before you go chasing virality, think about the potential negative consequences of participating in a trend — will you appear insensitive, self-serving, or desperate? There’s a fine line between the Pepsi ad and 84 Lumber’s superbowl ad. Make sure you’re staying on the right side of that line.
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