Top 10 Viral Marketing Disasters – Part 2 (5-1)

Somehow this marketing method is better than anything in this Top 10...

Now that 10-6 are out of the way, let’s move onto the true marketing catastrophes. These upcoming viral marketing disasters didn’t just fail – they completely missed the mark, overlooked the real demographic and/or damaged the overall brand.

Bear in mind, these were taken on by serious marketing companies and expected to drive traffic, sales and results. Whether they had anticipated the negative reactions and consequences is up for debate, but from what I can see, it seems unlikely.

5. ‘Ghost Recon Future Soldier’ Marketers Shoot Themselves In The Foot

This is probably the most recent marketing fail I’ve seen, and depressingly, one I’m quite used to. Now, I’m a complete geek and love playing video games from time to time, particularly ones that tell a story or explore innovations that can turn around the industry as we know it. I personally, was a fan of Ghost Recon Future Soldier thanks to its deep tactical system and clever strategic gameplay – however the same cannot be said for its advertising.

There have been some amazing game marketing campaigns as of late, such as ‘Halo: Believe’ and the incredibly moving Dead Island Trailer; however there’s a constant notion within the games industry that marketers still cannot move past – scantily-clad women. Just look at the E3 events and you’re bound to see women in bikinis promoting a game that they actually know little about.

I get it – people perceive the average video gamer as being a teenage boy, venting his sexual frustrations by decimating his friends in online multiplayer matches. But when you look at the statistics, the average age of a video gamer is 37 with a male/female split of 58%/42% respectively. So, why did Ghost Recon Future Soldier, a mature game that deals with a near-future war with the Russians, release a video about a scantily-clad, silicon-chested reality TV star called ‘Coco’?

You can find it here – but be warned, it is NSFW and embarassingly awful.

Coco goes on to explain that she loves shooting guns in real life and that the player can really feel at war in this game, as well as showing off some gameplay and shouting at the screen, all whilst a painful electric guitar whines in the background. I don’t get it.

Ghost Recon Coco

This is actually the most safe-for-work picture I could find.

Is it trying to emulate female empowerment? Is it showing that women can be machismo? Or is it just pandering to the target male market? I’m pretty sure we all know the answer there.

Marketing Fail Rating: 6/10 – Simply continues to peddle the myth that only teenage males are gamers, alienates major demographics and… is just plain stupid, frankly.

4. Pro-Wal-Mart Blog Turns Out To Be Funded By Wal-Mart

Bloggers. Everyone knows that an SEO loves a good blog – heck, why else do I blog? (except that I like watching and writing about the occasional cat video) In fact, bloggers hold a great deal of influence on the web, both in terms of powering links as well as influencing readers and changing opinions.

So when folksy blog, ‘Wal-Marting Across America’ gained popularity, Walmart must have been overjoyed. Owned and run by the cute married couple, Laura and Jim, the blog features interviews and stories about staff at Wal-Marts that they park at, as they make their way from Las Vegas to Georgia. What a lovely sentiment, right?

But something seemed a little bit off with the blog. All the staff were happy, photogenic and had these interesting, sentimental and cute stories behind them. Sure, you’d expect the occasional occurrence of this, but this was pretty much every post – it’s almost as if every Wal-Mart store was an ideal utopia to work in?
Wal-Marting Across American Blog Page
This very much contradicted with the public opinion of Wal-Mart stores where issues with benefits and wages were more than just a mild annoyance. In 2005, a number of trade unions set up new organisations and websites that influenced opinion against Wal-Mart, such as Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart (now both Making Change At Wal-Mart). How fortunate that just a year later this blog should appear – surely as some kind of saving grace!

Well, it didn’t take too long for people to put the pieces together and discover that something was definitely amiss. Jim and Laura turned out to be James Thresher, a professional photographer for the Washington Post, and Laura St. Claire, a freelance writer who works with the Treasury Department. They aren’t married but have lived together for eight years and have three children.

Laura had the idea of driving around in an RV and visiting their children, taking advantage of free parking in Wal-Marts, whilst writing about it for fellow RV owners. To ensure the trip went without a hitch, she decided to get permission from Pro-Wal-Mart organisation ‘Working Families for Wal-Mart’, a group which was formed by Wal-Mart’s PR firm Edelman, as a reaction to the aforementioned trade union groups, and signed up to show her support.

Seeing the possibility for a publicity boost from the couple, the group sponsored them and: “paid to fly the couple to Las Vegas, where a mint-green RV would be waiting for them, emblazoned with the Working Families for Wal-Mart logo. From there they would drive across country to Georgia and call the trip Wal-Marting Across America.” However, nowhere on the now-defunct site did it mention anything even referencing these facts – turns out that St Claire was even paid for each blog post.

A PR firm actively paying for a dishonest positive spin on their client that holds a number of negative opinions? Cue the backlash. Edelman was quickly crowned as the “king of social media screw-ups” and forced to give a public apology“I want to acknowledge our error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset. This is 100% our responsibility and our error; not the client’s.”

And all of this happened during a year where Walmart lost up to 8% of its customers due to negative press. Ouch.

Marketing Fail Rating: 8/10 – Pumping money into a positive campaign that is renowned to be hated by staff for its handling of money. What were they thinking?!

3. Chevy Tahoe Offer Chance To Roll Your Own Commercial, Actually Dig Their Own Grave

Think back to March 2006 for a bit – in the heady days of social media confusion, when Twitter consisted of just a couple of tweets, Facebook was still trailing to MySpace and when there was a new social channel quickly gaining in popularity… YouTube.

General Motors, teaming up with NBC’s ‘The Apprentice’ had the innovative idea of encouraging users to create their own commercials by giving them a basic video editing interface that allowed them to splice clips, insert text and add effects (akin to the ‘Make My Video’ games of the 90s). Add to this, the best videos stood a chance to win their creators “prizes ranging from a Jackson Hole Getaway to a trip to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game”.

This could have been a stroke of brilliance and created some genuinely awe-inspiring content to boost the Chevy brand, except for one pervading sentiment… cynicism.

Now, the Chevy Tahoe is not the most delicate of cars, nor is it the most environmentally-friendly, so encouraging a jaded audience to create positive videos was going to be a big ask. So what did GM do to prevent possible negativity? Nothing.

The Chevy Tahoe In Black

What a friendly-looking… beast.

Kudos for giving editors free reign over what was inserted in the videos, but ouch, what an oversight.

Within days, a swarm of videos portraying the Tahoe as a hulking, safety-challenged, gas-guzzler that was only created for men that were over-compensating for… ‘shortcomings’, shall we say.

Before you go searching for other similar videos, I should warn you that there was no censorship put into place, so they are most likely going to be NSFW, but still pretty hilarious.

After approximately a fortnight, GM removed the videos from their site and tried to forget the whole thing – sadly YouTube weren’t as forthcoming and they remain for your viewing pleasure.

Marketing Fail Rating: 8/10 – Negative publicity is one thing. Giving the audience a chance to create their own negative publicity for the brand… that’s brand suicide.

2. Sony Promote Cool Console In A Distinctly Un-Cool Way

Now, Sony are renowned for unconventional advertising campaigns (I’m still having nightmares from their crying doll advert) but this was just so misguided it feels like a parody.

In a similar vein to the aforementioned ‘Wal-Marting Across America’ campaign, Sony set up their own website that claimed to be created by two ‘kids’ called Charlie and Jeremy, who were extremely excited about the release of the handheld console, the Playstation Portable (or PSP).

The site was a blog peppered with hip spelling mistakes (“beatz”), childish inanity (“here’s the deal”) and all the stuff you’d expect to read on a teenager’s blog… But something was clearly amiss – these kids REALLY loved the PSP, even creating fliers about it… and an infamous rap video that is displayed below for your amusement/horror.

Was this just an awkward man-child ‘rapping’ about his love for a product?

Of course it wasn’t. It was in fact a highly misguided marketing campaign put into place by Zipatoni on behalf of Sony Computer Entertainment America, who quickly had to apologise (though in a pretty obnoxious manner) and reveal their terrible marketing techniques.

They didn’t stop there either – apparently they also thought graffiti would be the perfect way to draw in the cool-kid demographic, but actually just made themselves look even more ridiculous.

Sony PSP Graffiti On Building

…Interesting idea.

'Advertising Directed At Your Counter-Culture'

But the public were not fooled…

The ‘All I want for Xmas is a PSP’ video remains popular today (though not hosted or promoted by Sony), neatly fitting into the ‘So bad it’s good’ category – but I can’t imagine it made many people want to go and buy a PSP.

Marketing Fail Rating: 9/10 – A fake site, transparent ‘graffiti’ advertising and an embarrassingly-terrible rap video. It’s the perfect storm of a terrible marketing campaign.

1. Toyota Think Best Way Of Attracting Customers Is By Terrifying Them

When you think of good marketing, what comes into your head? User engagement? A clear and concise company message? Stalking, harassment and terrifying your customers?

Let’s start with a bit of background here… In 2009, alternate-reality games were unanimously-adored and gained a lot of engagement, for example such as with Cloverfield and The Dark Knight – people simply loved feeling like they were part of something otherworldly and finding out information for themselves.

In a move that can only be described without expletives as ‘bafflingly unwise’, Toyota and respected advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, decided to jump onto this bandwagon by promoting their Toyota Matrix with a campaign that invited people to nominate their friends to take part, inputting their contact information. These friends would then be the target of a campaign where a “fictitious character will pester [the friend] through personalised text messages, phone calls, e-mail and even videos… for five straight days”.
Toyota's Five Stalker "Personalities"
The five fictitious personalities that could be stalking the friend were “a heavy metal dude, a soccer hooligan, a conspiracy theorist, a Harajuku girl or a guy in a raccoon outfit”. See this video for further explanation…

Now, this could have been a harmless prank, but the creators decided to step it up a bit and essentially harass the nominated target with a string of communications that state that the fictitious character is coming to visit (or a similar theme) – on day 1, these remain mild enough, but by day 4, the weirdness has ramped up considerably.

Taking, for example, the heavy metal dude that targets Malcolm in the video above – on day three, the character wrecks a hotel room and Malcolm is sent the bill, and on day four, the character sends a video of a roadside sign with Malcolm’s name on it. Malcolm, at this point, is no doubt feeling more than a little creeped out. But, on day five, it’s all revealed to be a hilarious joke and no doubt Malcolm obviously sees the funny side and the campaign is a huge success.

Or… the campaign creators are successfully sued for harassment in a $10 million dollar lawsuit.

Yep. This actually happened. It began when Amber Duick, a woman from Los Angeles, was nominated by a friend for the campaign and was stalked by a fictitious character called “Sebastian Bowler… a 25-year-old Englishman and a fanatical English soccer fan who enjoyed drinking alcohol to excess…”

The court documents state that Bowler also “ran into a little problem at the hotel,” and Duick was contacted by an individual identifying himself as “’Jimmy Citro’, purporting to be the manager of a motel and billing Duick for the damage Bowler had done to the motel’s property”.

Other ‘highlights’ include, “I seem to have lost the coppers for now, so I’m all good, mate” and “Had a brush with the law last night. Anyway hopefully I’ll have lost them by the time I get to your place.”

Duick naturally freaked out and subsequently “sued Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi and fifty individuals associated with the campaign for intentional infliction of emotional distress; unfair, unlawful, and deceptive trade practices; and negligent misrepresentation, among other things.” 

Despite Toyota’s best efforts to dismiss the suit, Duick was successful in the $10 million lawsuit and the campaign has “been suspended for quite some time.”

Marketing Fail Rating: $10,000,000/10 –Enticing potential customers to buy a Toyota by terrifying them for five days was asking for trouble, and it certainly received it, in abundance. Suffering a $10 million dollar lawsuit from a campaign that totally missed any kind of company message surely has to be the greatest fail of all. Prospective marketers remember – when a campaign becomes a felony, you are not doing a good job.

Missed Part 1? Click here!

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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  • Adam

    #5 was painfully bad to watch, lol.

    They should have paid FPS Russia to promote their game instead. He probably would have been cheaper too.

    Tom, are you on Twitter or G+?


    • Tom Clark

      Hey Adam,

      Number 5 just made me feel sad to be a gamer.

      And indeed I am!

      Not sure what Tuesday’s blog will be on, but I’ll try and make it interesting!

      • Adam

        Happy to write something for you if you like?

        Will PM you :)

        • Tom Clark

           Definitely. Would love to have some contributors! Following you back now so look forward to what you may have :D

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