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Stuff didn't go viral like I had hoped... Please help.A viral marketing campaign can prove to be one of the most successful strategies for increasing brand exposure and gaining a steady number of natural links from typically authoritative sources. However, it’s never as simple as releasing a company video or just dancing in public, and for every successful campaign, there’s a heapload that either didn’t gain attention or actually had a negative impact on the brand.

And in the spirit of schadenfreude, let’s take a look at some of the worst viral marketing fails and explore whether there really is ‘no such thing as bad publicity’.

10. Paddy Power Gambles With Controversy

Oh, Paddy Power – I know your game. Create controversial content, await the backlash, and boom, instant publicity. It’s a risky game to play, but in the industry of online gambling, having a family-safe and neutral perception is not going to be the top of their list of concerns.

In a genius move, the marketers at Paddy Power took a Facebook comment and created a humorous video around it – not only did this give them the ammunition for a new video, but also rewarded the fans for engaging with the page.

In a series of videos produced around Feb-May 2012, the voiceover would begin “XX wrote on our Facebook wall” and then the posted message would be turned into a video. These were often relatively high-quality and gained some television coverage, though often ended up being banned from channels. The most notable of these videos were ‘Chav Tranquiliser’ and ‘Ladies Day’, both drumming up a lot of publicity, though not in the most positive of ways.

Chav Tranquiliser’ capitalised on the upcoming race day at Cheltenham and in a movethat only served to show a great deal of class-prejudice, showed chavs being tranquilised in order to keep the peace. Whilst many flocked to this as a celebration of cracking down on anti-social behaviour, those being targeted are simply drinking lager, dressed casually or talking loudly – hardly a major issue. This advert was broadcast for four days before being pulled, but still brought the company a large amount of interest.

Ladies Day’, in contrast, was altogether more obviously offensive, in its targeting of the transgender community, comparing transgendered women mixing amongst the crowds and asking the audience to ‘spot the stallions from the mares’. The advert then went on to focus on different people whilst the voiceover attempted to define whether they were a woman or a man. Need I even state why this is offensive?

The advert was quickly pulled and faced investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority after 500 complaints that it is “offensive, transphobic and derogatory towards transgender people”.

Marketing Fail Rating: 3/10 – it may have sullied their name slightly, but it’s unlikely they’ll care, as they’ve continued to pull this kind of advertising since, plus it brought their name into the spotlight.


9. Cole, Russell & Pryce’s ‘Violence of the Lambs’

Perhaps one of the earliest online marketing disasters I can recall reading about came from Swedish advertising agency Cole, Russell and Pryce, who decided to promote their new website with an e-mail marketing campaign consisting of sending a picture of a mutilated lamb. Many say there is a fine line between genius and insanity, but clearly, this agency waltzed right over this line to unadulterated idiocy.

So, how did it all start?

The first e-mail consisted of an adorable-looking lamb in a field, taken as a Polaroid, with the accompanying text ‘for the sake of the lamb’. Odd, but quirky… until the next day.

Cute! …And then it all got a bit darker…

The following day, people would receive another e-mail with the picture of the lamb, now showing it’s leg hacked off and bloody. Now, obviously this was a poor photoshop mockup, so it’s just some misplaced dark humour, right? Oh, I forgot to mention, that “the very same day 90 chosen colleagues and clients received a real lamb hoof in a box delivered to their offices”.

Did I also mention that one of Cole, Russell and Pryce’s clients was Djurens Rätt, an animal rights organisation? As to be expected, the press manager at Djurens Rätt, Eva Söderström, said, “It’s pretty obvious what we think of that campaign.”

Fellow client Vodafone was also quick to voice their opinion on the campaign, stating, “That campaign showed incredibly bad judgement. Of course we wondered if something like that might happen again, and how the agency could assure us that it wouldn’t. We are very pleased that they acted so fast.”

Cole, Russell & Pryce managed to hold onto their clients, thanks to a decisive action of immediately firing Creative Director, founder and part owner of the agency, Olle Sjödén. The company appear to have gone out of business during this same year (I can’t find any records of them post-2004 anyway)  – we can only hope that no lambs were harmed in all of this either.

Marketing Fail Rating: 5/10 – They sent lamb hooves in the post… to promote their website. That’s not just a marketing fail, that’s usually considered a cry for help. Eesh.


8. Microsoft Vista Fails To Wow

Remember being wowed when you used Microsoft Vista? Do you recall all those satisfied customers that upon loading Vista were blown away with its speed and responsiveness, all uttering a hushed ‘wow’ in awe. No? Well, Microsoft had planned for that. 500 million dollars worth of planning, in fact.

Back in the heady days of 2007, Microsoft undertook a marketing campaign to generate interest and business for their new operating system, Vista.

The campaign revolved around a theme of showing amazing advances and achievements we as humans have made whilst watchers stare blankly and say ‘wow’. Calling it annoying would be an understatement, but the real failure of this campaign? The product.

Add to that the sheer air of pretension and high expectations, that really only a company like Apple can actually get away with (and in fact shamelessly mocked this campaign), and you have a marketing failure on your hands.

The campaign, launching in January 2007, had plans to generate: “6.6 billion impressions in the first few months.”

It would also feature strategies such as, “marketing stunts and sponsorships that will include a human billboard with 16 dancers, party in Times Square, LeBron James in the TV ads, and CEO Steve Ballmer will greet customers at Best Buy in New York.”

However, in a survey conducted in March 2007, 67% of computer users said “I will not upgrade to Windows Vista”, despite the fact that “87% of users were aware of the launching of Windows Vista” thus had been exposed to their marketing.

The campaign quickly became a target for sarcastic comments and negativity, particularly because the much-touted Aero interface was too processor-intensive to run on some systems; however, Microsoft shifted in “excess of 40 million licenses of the operating system following the first 100 days of availability” and “making Microsoft the top online advertiser between January and April 2007”. Sometimes marketing can really save a flawed product!

Marketing Fail Rating: 5/10 – A successful campaign, but with a high spend, dated sentiment and a generally-hated product to back it up, this wasn’t Microsoft’s finest moment .


7. Tele2’s Misguided Meteorite

It’s late evening in Latvia, late-2009, and, amidst a financial crisis, a large crater is discovered, claimed to have been cause by a meteorite. Finally, people aren’t talking about money or the economic meltdown that abounded the news within the country.

The media flocked to this crater almost instantly and the government despatched scientists to survey the area and check for radioactivity. Amateur video, akin to that seen in Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, went viral quickly and I’ll admit, even I was intrigued. However, come morning, there was something amiss – the crater was quite clearly a fake.

Girts Stinkulis, a geologist at the University of Latvia, stated, ‘It’s artificial, dug by shovel,’ and Dainis Ozols, a nature conservationist, said he believes someone dug the hole and tried to make it look like a meteorite crater by burning some pyrotechnic compound at the bottom.

So who created this? Bored students, crazy scientists… aliens trying to throw us off the scent? Well, in case you hadn’t read the title of this section, it was in fact Tele2, a Swedish telecommunications company.

Two days after the ‘meteorite crater’ was reported on, Tele2 came forward, stating that they had perpetrated the stunt “to draw attention away from Latvia’s economic crisis and toward something else more interesting” and that it would form part of a future marketing campaign – “The message will become clear as soon as the concept is launched”. Tele2 would later announce a new product portfolio containing the ‘Meteorite tariff plan’, and actually see a “major sales success”; however the consequent investigation by the Latvian Advertising Association can’t have helped matters.

Tele2 haven’t indulged in similar forms of marketing since, but if they did, it would most likely involve burying an angel to open a new discount mall.

Marketing Fail Rating: 5/10 – Though Tele2 had seen an increase in sales, a fair amount of time was wasted, fear was created in the community surrounding the crater and reputation was damaged. Plus, I wanted it to be a real meteorite, so boo them for getting my hopes up.



6. Dr Pepper Fail To Predict The Worst That Could Happen

First of all, being a pessimist I never really understood that slogan – and it turns out that neither did Dr Pepper when they launched their “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” Facebook campaign.

This campaign, created by the Lean Mean Fighting Machine agency, gave contestants a chance to win £1,000 if they handed over control of their Facebook status updates, so that literally anything could get posted. This might have seemed harmless enough and a chance for friends to laugh at each other; however thanks to some seriously misguided data-input, the worst possible status update appeared.

Think it’s as bad as this? You’re quite wrong…

The updates ranged in embarrassment from wetting yourself or running out of loo paper, but there was one that went that extra step. There was also no age requirement to enter this campaign – so when this status update that mentioned a notorious and explicit shock video appeared on a 14-year old girl’s Facebook page, things were bound to go awry. The status is linked here.

Now, as an added disclaimer I should urge you to NEVER ever search for this, as it’s REALLY not safe for work, unpleasant and simply not worth looking at. Unfortunately, the aforementioned teenage girl didn’t have such advice, so naturally kept the posted status. Her mum, a regular Mumsnetter, then saw this post on her daughter’s wall and quickly went onto the Mumsnet forum and vented her concerns. This thread then gathered a great deal of support and publicity after the press ultimately got a hold of it.

Coca-Cola, the owners of Dr Pepper, were forced to pull the promotion the very next day and Dr Pepper likely didn’t improve their brand perception with any of the mums out there.

Coca Cola’s professional response was pretty weak too

“We were unaware of the meaning of this line when the promotion was approved and have launched an investigation into why it was included. We take full responsibility and will be reviewing our promotional procedures.”

Bear in mind, they had directly hired Lean Mean Fighting Machine, an agency known for creating risqué and purposefully-shocking projects in the past, such as the ‘Speechbreaker’ election campaign.

This was an exercise in trusting Dr Pepper to produce a light-hearted campaign, but became a disaster because the creators had failed to note that not all social media users are in the same demographic.

To those that get the reference, it might be funny, but to the majority that are unaware, it’s likely they’ll want to research it. Simply put, trying to direct your audience to a shock video = marketing disaster.

Marketing Fail Rating: 6/10 – Whilst not directly posting anything explicit, simply mentioning the shock video is a highly misguided move and represents a major oversight by the agency.

On Friday, we will look at the top 5, and likely want to bury our face in our palms.

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Tom Clark

I am the Head of Social Search at Lakestar McCANN - a digital marketing agency specialising in SEO, PPC, Social Media, Affiliates, Display and industry news feeds. I have been in the SEO industry for 2 years now, and with Lakestar for over a year, helping to create new effective web strategies, as well as integrating social methods into existing deliverables.

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  • http://space-wolves-grey.blogspot.co.uk/ Adam

    I love this stuff Tom. Geat content as usual :)