5 Viral Marketing Campaigns that Backfired

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Al Pavangkanan

With so much competition out there, and a seemingly limited audience to compete for, advertisers must continuously find ways to make their ads stand out. Shock value and edginess are often used as a gimmick to get attention from potential customers. Unfortunately, these campaigns sometimes fail, leaving consumers with a bad taste in their mouth or something hilarious to talk about. It is nearly impossible to determine beforehand which strategies might go viral, and which might be successful. It’s a risk some businesses are willing to take.

Life Lock

Todd Davis, CEO of Life Lock was so confident in his company’s identity theft protection service that he advertised his actual social security number in ads for his service, daring identity thieves to try and use it. A CNN article later reported that Mr. Davis was the victim of identity theft after airing the commercial. The article reported that Mr. Davis’ identity was compromised in 87 different instances. This report caused his company to lose business because no one believed that he could protect their identity if he couldn’t even protect his own.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force

In 2007, a bomb scare occurred after a new campaign advertising the cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The campaign featured LED placards of “Mooninites”, characters from the show. The placards were placed in Boston, Massachusetts and surrounding areas, and incited what is now referred to as the “2007 Bomb Scare”. The placards were mistaken for bombs by the Boston Police Department, causing a panic surrounding the devices. Once discovered to be harmless, the two men responsible for placing the devices around the area were arrested on charges of causing public panic. They were released on $2,500 bail the next morning.

BP Oil Spill

The BP Oil Spill ad campaign was more of a clean-up than an attempt at advertising. However, it wasn’t seen that way by critics. In an attempt to repair the reputation of the company, CEO Tony Hayward introduced an apologetic ad promising to clean up the spill and prevent others from ever happening again. Viewers were however, assuming that the money used for the ad would be better used toward the efforts to clean up the damage from the spill. Even President Barack Obama commented that the money from the ad could have been used instead to compensate fishermen and small business owners who lost money as a direct result of the spill. Images of clean-up efforts in the ad clashed harshly with those shown by the news media, making the ad seem shallow and insincere. The ad failed to convince the public that BP was serious about the clean-up effort.

Resident Evil

In a marketing campaign to promote the newest release of the video game Resident Evil, panic unfolded when a fake phone virus was used to spread interest. Users were lead to believe that their phones were infected with the “T-Virus”, a fictional virus. Fortunately, the “virus” as simply a text message that claimed to infect the user’s phone. The marketing ploy backfired, and the company behind the marketing campaign had to issue a press release assuring the public that the messages were part of an advertising campaign, and that their phones were not really infected.

Chevy Tahoe

Chevy’s ad campaign for Tahoe opened doors for designers to create their own Chevy ad. The contestants would then get to see their ad featured officially for the SUV. Unfortunately, the most popular videos were those of environmentalists protesting the widespread production of gas guzzling SUVs. The ads made fun of SUV drivers and pinned SUV makers with the responsibility of progressing global warming.

Sabrina Thompson is a fortune 500 marketing campaign manager and guest author at TopMarketingSchools.net, a site with information and guides to marketing degree programs.


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