3 Viral Campaigns That Hilariously Backfired

Most large corporations view viral marketing campaigns the same way 13 year-old boys view sex. They don’t really understand what it is, but they know it’s something you’re supposed to have a lot of if you want to be cool.

Similarly, corporations can make themselves look really stupid in their attempts to get it. The trouble is, a viral marketing campaign means a large chunk of the marketing work, the distribution, the framing, even the copy itself, is in the hands of the general public, who may not have your company’s best interests at heart.

I want you to read these three stories, not as a chance to mock business behemoths receiving their just downfall. No. I want you to read these as a sign that, even in this cold, cynical world, there are still people out there, working in marketing, who are willing to put their faith in the essential good-naturedness of their fellow man. And then had it blow up in their face.

United Dreams of Europe

United Dreams of Europe sounds like a great thing. Everyone likes to be united. Most people like dreams. A lot of people like Europe. So when the Foundation of Future Studies, an organisation that you’re forced to assume is researching flying cars, launched a study with this name, you’d think it would get a positive response. As their website said:

“United Dreams of Europe” is the title of the current research project of the Foundation for Future Studies. The project includes various approaches:

Firstly, with the aim of gaining insight into perceptions of and views on Europe, we conducted a survey. In the end more than 15,000 citizens from 13 European countries took part in our quantitative research.”

This good-hearted, optimistic project that was a bit like trying for world peace or something, ran into two pretty significant problems. The first is that, no matter how many nice names they attached to the project, they couldn’t cover up the fact that the Foundation of Future Studies, despite very nearly sharing its name with an organisation run by the Fantastic Four, is still, at heart, a thinly disguised cover for British American Tobacco.

The second  problem, which kind of spun off the first one, is that the “survey” of “15,000” people took place in the form of a completely unmoderated comment feed. This is the Internet equivalent of going Naked Beehive Punching after painting yourself in jam.

The answers varied from the condemning:

Aw, this site is such a lovely idea- congratulations to all behind it, you will get your reward in heaven guys!

I dream of a Europe where big tobacco companies don’t use breathtakingly insincere and laughably pretentious ‘corporate social responsibility’ initiatives in a vain attempt to ask the fact that their real purpose is to profit from getting millions of people to consume a product that is highly addictive and will ultimately kill around half of the people who use it.

To the comic:

I dream of a Europe where everyone smokes cigarettes and no one lives past 40. It will be a bit like Logan’s run but less running and more coughing.

To the strangely poetic:

I dream of phlegm first. Multicoloured, unctuous phlegm. Like a river. Flowing through Europe, uniting us all, flowing to the sea and reaching out playfully across the oceans. Brightly coloured boxed of tasty treats, peeping orange and white, full of promise. The names flashing overhead Lucky Strike, Benson &Hedges. Such magical sounds.

But then the dream turns dark. Rivers of blood. Oceans of medicines. Gasping for Air.

Sadly, as of press time these more creative answers had been cut, leaving only a bunch of rubbish about peace, and love and stuff.

Chevy asks you to write your own ad

Now I know I’m trying to frame this as poor, naive marketing folks putting these campaigns out there just because of their innate faith in the goodness of human nature, but this campaign was just lazy. In marketing the Chevy Tahoe the company put up some online clips and video editing tools to get the public to created “user generated” adverts.

The only way this plan could possibly go wrong, the marketing geniuses behind the project must have though, is if for some reason the people of Internet maliciously went out of their way to create negative attack adverts which we would be forced to host on our own website. And why would people do that?

Some people did it to spread an environmental message. Some simply wanted to point out that the Chevy Tahoe was just a pretty crappy car.  And then there was this one, that just flat out told you to murder your entire family.


This is probably the most famous backfire in the history of social media backfiring. It even spawned a new word “bashtagging”. This was such a disaster it’s actually led to companies look for ways to legislate against people slagging them off on Twitter.

And it all started with McDonald’s asking people to share their McDonald’s Stories on Twitter, using the hashtag ‘McDstories.

And they did. Like this

and this

and this.

So, therein lie the dangers of trying to engage members of the general public in your marketing recruitment. Turns out they don’t like it. Or you. Or the existence of anything good or pure in this world. Interactivity is hugely overrated.

Image License:  Creative Commons image source

Sam Wright is a freelance writer who is pretty sure marketing works better when you don’t ask the public to do it for you.

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