The 6 Most Insanely Misguided Attempts at Viral Marketing
The goal for marketing types in the Internet age is a "viral" ad campaign. You pull off some publicity stunt, there's tons of coverage on the internet, you wind up with millions of eyeballs for virtually no cost.
But viral campaigns are all about pushing the envelope. You have to shock people to get their attention, and this is where the potential for disaster lies.
Awful, hilarious disaster.
Promoting a Video Game With the Threat of Murder
Like most of today's best video games, Splinter Cell is all about the gratuitous violence. While a reasonable marketing team would use half naked ladies and bitchin' guitar licks to promote their ultra-violent entertainment, the geniuses behind Splinter Cell decided nothing short of an act of terror would do the trick.
"We were going to get a billboard, but then we remembered Alan Rickman's brilliant viral marketing campaign in Die Hard."
So in April, 2010, Splinter Cell hired an actor to wear heavily bandaged hands (like a character from the game, apparently) and wave a fake gun at strangers in a New Zealand bar, and they did it without the obligatory "THIS IS A MARKETING STUNT" sign usually recommended for such endeavors. And we should note that the gun didn't look fake, at all.
This was not the gun.
Shockingly, the reaction from the bar patrons was not to go out and buy Splinter Cell. Instead, someone just ruined everything and yelled, "He's got a gun!" Things just went to hell from there.
"Excuse us, have you heard about the newest Mario game?"
The cops came, totally disrupting the rest of the "campaign," which was supposed to include a second actor who came in and saved the day. But he never got that far, on account of the chaotic storm of horror that occurs when a bandage-handed madman interrupts happy hour.
There were two bits of good news for the fake gunman, though. One: The police really thought he was wielding a real gun, so he's lucky he didn't get "splintered celled" with bullets himself. And two: convincing a bar full of people he was a real terrorist means he's really got the acting chops to be make it big someday.
Next stop: Broadway!
Toyota Scares the Shit out of its Prospective Customers
Alternate reality games have become pretty common in marketing. Customers love them and they're effective advertisements. For those unfamiliar with the concept, they're basically promotions that mix together all sorts of different media to guide players through a story. For example, if you sign up for a game about an upcoming movie, one of its characters might send you e-mails and leave you telephone messages with passwords in them to help you navigate a complex website.
Then Steve Buscemi comes to your house and makes you pancakes.
So last year, Toyota launched a game called "The Other You" to promote the Toyota Matrix. This game wasn't exactly a "game" as much as it was an elaborate, interactive pranking campaign. Or maybe better phrase would probably be "stalking campaign."
It was a tossup between this clown and stalkers for hire. Toyota went with the less-creepy option.
For one thing, you weren't playing for yourself. You signed up an unwitting friend. Then that friend got stalked by a stranger who called them and said they were going to come to their house. How Toyota thought this would compel people to buy their cars is unknowable.
When a Los Angeles woman started receiving threatening e-mails, a link to a fake MySpace page and a fake bill in her name for trashed hotel rooms, her first thought sure as hell wasn't Oh, must be a clever promotion from an automaker, perhaps I should visit one of their fine dealerships.
This is probably closer to her reaction.
The pretend stalking, which lasted for five days, scared her enough that she went to her family for protection and, according to her 10 million dollar lawsuit, her health and job performance suffered.
Toyota's counterargument was that she consented to the game, which makes perfect sense except for the fact that she had absolutely no clue what was going on. The results of the lawsuit are still pending, but in the meantime look for Toyota's new "Buy a Corolla or we'll send an axe murderer to your house" initiative.
"Just kidding! I'm actually going to murder you whether you buy a Camry or not."
A Phone Company Stages a Meteorite Crash to Cheer Everyone Up
One country that has been hit particularly hard by the worldwide financial meltdown is Latvia, and as a result its government was desperate to cut costs. Everybody in Latvia was feeling kind of down, so when a meteorite crashed into a field one evening and an amateur video of its discovery went viral on the Internet, people were glad to have something other than their awful economy to talk about.
The Latvian masses gathered around the nation's only "Internetting box" to watch the video.
The crash site soon became a media circus: the press converged on it, civilians came to check it out (after paying money to the enterprising landowner) and the government sent a bunch of scientists and soldiers to make sure it wasn't radioactive or full of angry aliens. Everyone was very excited, at least until the sun rose and the scientists were able to get a clear look at the site, at which point they immediately called bullshit.
It was a fake crater, and not even a very good one. Responsibility was soon claimed by Tele2, a Swedish telecommunications company.
"If they can do this, imagine how awesome their cell reception must be!"
They claimed the stunt was designed to "draw attention away from Latvia's economic crisis and towards something else more interesting," which suggests that either they thought it was their job to be a cheerleader for another country, or that making the government waste a ton of money on investigating hoaxes was somehow going to draw attention away from budget problems.
"Don't worry about the fuel, just look at the beauty of the flames."
Not to mention that either they were arrogant enough to assume people wouldn't object to them manipulating headlines, or they had a very poor understanding of the phrase "making the news."
"Oil spills are really grabbing a lot of headlines. Let's do something with that."
They later clarified by saying that the hoax was part of an upcoming marketing campaign, and that "the message will become clear as soon as the concept is launched." It better have been a damn good concept, because they needed new customers after the Latvian government found a way to make up for all the money they wasted: They canceled their contracts with Tele2.
Wal-Mart Secretly Funds a Blog About How Awesome Wal-Mart Is
In America you're almost required to both hate Wal-Mart, and shop there on a weekly basis. It's kind of an odd relationship. Television commercials can only do so much to combat the company's bad image. No matter how many cute smiley faces Wal-Mart's marketing department throws at us, we're still going to picture their stores as a place where, for customers and employees, dignity goes to die.
As proof, this is the very first GIS result for "walmart greeter."
So when Wal-Mart decided their reputation needed bolstering, they knew they had to come at it from a different angle. They needed to display proof that people loved their stores: real stories about the lives of everyday Americans, all of them made better thanks to the hard working and proud employees of Wal-Mart. But they couldn't find any of those, so they paid a married couple to manufacture some.
The result was a blog called Wal-Marting Across America, which chronicled the journey of the happily married Laura and Jim as they took their new RV around the country and told stories of the people they encountered. At first glance it was kind of cute in a dumb way, sort of like watching your grandma check her e-mail. But you only had to read a few entries before you noticed the excessive praise Wal-Mart and its employees were getting.
Pretty much the entire Internet noticed, actually. Perhaps tipped off by the fact that the blog included pictures of Wal-Mart workers who were happy and claimed to enjoy their job--an obvious red flag--people started to look into the details of the site.The Backfire
"Jim" was discovered to be James Thresher, a photographer for the Washington Post who apparently hadn't picked up on his employer's history of journalistic integrity.
The funding for the entire trip (plus payment for every blog post) was revealed to have come from Wal-Mart's PR firm and the end result was huge backlash from both the Internet and the mainstream media.
How badly did it affect Wal-Mart? Well, it came during a year where the company was estimated to have lost up to eight percent of its customers because of negative press. Damn, worst PR firm ever.
Nothing Promotes a Website Better Than Animal Cruelty
Picture the following: You're a top ranking employee at a Swedish ad agency, and they've just launched a new website. Your company is really excited about the change, and you've been put in charge of informing your many clients about how awesome and useful the new site is. How do you approach this task?
If you answered "sending doctored images depicting the gratuitous butchery of a live lamb," then congratulations, you're completely insane! You'll fit in great at clownshit ad agency Cole, Russell & Pryce!
The craziness started with an e-mail to all of their clients featuring a picture of a lamb and a message urging them to visit the new website for the animal's sake. OK, that's a little unorthodox; but whatever, baby animals are cute, we can roll with that.
That e-mail was followed up with a second one, this time featuring a picture of a lamb with its front hoof chopped off.
"Aawww- holy shit!"
But these mad men weren't done. Not content to merely provide Photoshopped butchery, the agency also mailed boxes containing real lamb hoofs to 90 clients. We'd like to emphasize that. A company that people pay to make products look good could think of no better way to advertise their website than to surprise people with the remains of slaughtered lambs.
So this might be a good time to mention that that one of Cole, Russell & Pryce's clients was an animal rights organization. Because we're like 90% sure that should have factored into their thought process at some point.
Also, they probably could have picked a less adorable animal.
Surprisingly, the company managed to keep their clients, but only after giving in to the demand that the founder, part owner and visionary behind this campaign be fired.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Never Forget
It will go down as either the worst, or best, viral marketing stunt in history. We readily admit that the line is very thin sometimes.
Back in 2007, Aqua Teen Hunger Force had a movie coming out. Since the show is rather obscure and eccentric (as far as mainstream audiences are concerned anyway) it would have been tough to pack the theaters through traditional advertising alone, even if they had the budget for it (they didn't). So, a guerrilla marketing blitz was planned to get the word out.
Dozens of LED placards featuring a character from the show were placed around eight different American cities, presumably to remind people to go see the movie. Or to inspire child like nostalgia for dirty gestures created on childhood toys. We'll never know.
Given the source material, it may be both.
In seven of those cities the campaign went pretty well. In Boston, however, people freaked right the hell out.
The panic began when a transit passenger saw one of the signs and pointed it out to a policeman. You have to imagine it in context; it's this electronic device, with wires and shit coming out of the back, and on the front is a picture of a guy giving you the finger. There is no sane explanation for that object existing. It's actually more reasonable to assume "bomb."
OK, maybe "reasonable" isn't the best word to describe the reaction. The cop called in a fleet of squad cars, fire trucks, ambulances and the bomb squad to investigate. They eventually concluded that the device shared "some characteristics with improvised explosive devices."
So the police shut down the nearby roads and blew the placard up. They then proceeded to shut down a pair of bridges to take down a second sign and the Coast Guard closed off part of the Charles River.
It was at this point that some presumably Irish Catholic Einstein figured out that this was not actually an act of terror, but a newfangled marketing campaign. So they arrested the two guys who had put the placards up on the charge of "placing a hoax device with the intent to panic the public," probably because there's no law in Boston against making the police look like idiots.
And do you realize how hard it is for a guy with hair like that to not look like the idiot?
Turner Broadcasting, the company that owns the show, had to pay one million dollars each to the Boston Police and the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile the incident made headlines around the world, earning the show and movie probably, oh, 10 times that amount in free publicity.
We hope they learned their lesson.
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For more instances of companies blowing it, check out 5 Corporate Promotions That Ended in (Predictable) Disaster and 9 Corporate Attempts At "Edgy" That Failed (Hilariously).
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