When done well, social media is an awesome way to connect with customers. It helps you build a brand personality that goes beyond a standard buyer/seller relationship.

When it’s done poorly … well, it can be more painful than a mouthful of Brussels sprouts and aluminum foil. (We don’t recommend trying that.) Here are some examples of social media marketing gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Cashing In on Natural Disaster

Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was a terrible disaster. It left hundreds of people dead and thousands more homeless. So naturally, some retailers figured it was the perfect opportunity to hawk their goods. Among the offenders:

  • American Apparel promoted a “Hurricane Sandy Sale.” They offered discounts “in case you’re bored during the storm.”
  • Urban Outfitters promoted free shipping on Twitter with the hashtag #ALLSOGGY and the message, “This storm blows (but free shipping doesn’t)! Today only …”
  • Jonathan Adler invited customers to “storm our site,” and offered free shipping with the checkout code “SANDY.”
  • Gap tweeted to followers in Sandy’s path to stay indoors and do their shopping on Gap.com.
  • President’s Choice food retailer linked the disaster to a Halloween recipe. They tweeted: “What’s scarier? Hurricane #Sandy or a beverage with marshmallow eyeballs?” Perhaps not the worst offender, but probably the strangest …

Takeaway: Tragedies are tragedies, not marketing opportunities. Think twice before commenting at all — only do so if it makes sense for you to be involved (i.e., you’re directly affected).

If your business comments on an unfortunate event, keep it short, respectful and advertising-free.

Oops, Was That Out Loud?

Crass merchandising isn’t the only way to turn a social media campaign bad. Off-brand messaging can come across particularly poorly. And on a worldwide stage at that. For example:

  • A Red Cross employee inadvertently tweeted, “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer … when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd.” Red Cross responded quickly and with good humor, posting, “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”
  • Followers of Vodafone UK’s Twitter account were shocked to see an obscene and homophobic tweet on their feed. Vodafone first claimed someone hacked their account. But the culprit was one of their own staff. Vodafone eventually admitted to the embarrassing incident and the employee was suspended.
  • Chrysler hired the New Media Strategies agency to handle their social media marketing. Unfortunately, an agency employee dropped an angry driving rant (complete with f-bomb) on thousands of Chrysler’s Twitter followers. Chrysler fired the tweeter and didn’t renew their contract with New Media Strategies.

Takeaway: Be careful about letting other people post, comment or broadcast for your business or your brand. Even a harmless mistweet can damage your online reputation. So make sure your online representatives are clear on messaging and intent.

I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar

Miele was so excited about their new washer and dryer, they thought everyone else would be as happy as they were. So they ran a Facebook campaign in 2017 with four women in business attire around the washer/dryer combo, throwing a party. Literally. With cake. And confetti.

Takeaway: It’s no surprise the “modern woman” Miele was trying to portray didn’t take kindly to the gender stereotyping. Learn from them. Do the market research necessary to understand the person using your services. Don’t assume you know them. Unless, of course, you are them.

Needless to say, the ad was pulled.

You Sure You Want That Latte?

In 2019, when Chase Bank tried to breathe life into its banking products, it could have done better than to sound like your mother.

Chase was trying to join in on the #MondayMotivation conversation when it tweeted a pretend conversation between the reader and their bank account.

When the reader questioned why their funds were so low, the Chase account responded with a series of responses chastising their spending habits.

The post went viral and even made its way into the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, with then-candidate Elizabeth Warren mimicking it to criticize economic policy.

Takeaway: Perception is reality. Social media’s purpose is to put a human face on your business. If you don’t want people to think of you as a patronizing bureaucracy, then don’t talk like a patronizing bureaucracy.

#Hashtag Becomes #Bashtag

This is the social media fail that keeps on repeating itself. Brands trying to engage their audiences run seemingly innocuous fill-in-the-blank or “tell your own story” campaigns.

But what the brands and/or their agencies fail to consider is the millions of people who aren’t brand lovers. The social media universe is just looking for ways to poke fun. And they’ll use those blanks to blanket the internet with crude jokes or graphic stories.

Aldi and McDonald’s are just some of the notable brands that have had their hashtags highjacked.

Takeaway: Never run a fill-in-the-blank campaign, for starters. But also, don’t rely on the public to create your campaign for you, particularly if you’re a brand with as many haters as lovers.

Social media engenders a mob mentality. All it takes is a handful of people behaving badly to lose control of your marketing efforts. If you’re going to base your campaign around a hashtag, make sure people will respond positively.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Social Media

Wielded properly, social media can show the personality behind your brand. And it can help you connect with people who may not otherwise know or be looking for your business.

But as these cautionary tales point out, there is a good way and a bad way to use social media.

“Off-the-cuff” doesn’t work as a social media plan. If you’re not sure how you should use social media to promote your business, some expert guidance can go a long way.

You don’t want to “go viral” for all the wrong reasons.