Every brand has a bad day.
Not every company is as good at social media as Denny’s and Travelocity, but some of them are downright terrible. Obscene photos, sexist imagery, endorsements of spousal abuse—you name it, a brand has done it.
Because brands on Twitter exist at the intersection of disembodied corporate salespeople and friendly, almost human companions, their screw-ups occupy a special place in our memory. Brand fails are the trainwrecks heard round the world, and 2014 saw more than its fair share of them.
In early September, Ray Rice was suspended from the Baltimore Ravens after TMZ posted video of him brutally assaulting his fiancée. (He later successfully appealed his suspension.) On Sept. 8, anti-domestic violence hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft trended worldwide, as women shared unimaginably horrific stories of suffering through and escaping domestic abuse.
That evening, DiGiorno Pizza’s social media team was looking for a way to promote its product. One of brands’ favorite tactics is to locate trending hashtags and co-opt them. At 11:11pm, one of DiGiorno’s employees found a hook. Unfortunately, the employee didn’t check why the hashtag he or she chose was trending in the first place, and the engagement DiGiorno got was the opposite of what it wanted.
— Scott Paul (@scottatslee) September 9, 2014
It’s not delivery. It’s disaster.
We’ve all had the experience of accidentally grabbing the wrong image from our desktop for a tweet, Facebook message, or email. Depending on the content of the image, sender and recipient either laugh it off, talk about it, or studiously ignore it with all their collective willpower. That’s fine when it’s a private conversation. When the sender in question is a major American airline, the mistake—and the embarrassment—soars into the stratosphere.
Brand fails are the trainwrecks heard round the world, and 2014 saw more than its fair share of them.
Here is an exchange between unhappy customer @ElleRafter and an employee manning the @USAirways handle.
@USAirways Unhappy that 1787 sat for an hour on tarmac in CLT because overweight, resulting in over hour late arrival in PDX…
— Elle (@ElleRafter) April 14, 2014
@ellerafter We truly dislike delays too and are very sorry your flight was affected.
— US Airways (@USAirways) April 14, 2014
@USAirways yeah, you seem so very sorry. So sorry, in fact, that you couldn’t be bothered to address my other tweets.
— Elle (@ElleRafter) April 14, 2014
Everything seems fine so far, right? Not exactly a happy conversation, but certainly nothing worse than the criticism that every major brand has faced. Then things got weird. Here is a screenshot of @USAirways’ next tweet, captured by BuzzFeed. You can click the BuzzFeed link if you really want to see the full-size image. But you don’t need to be a social media consultant to know that this 40,000-foot gaffe immediately took off on Twitter.
US Airways, naturally, apologized.
We apologize for an inappropriate image recently shared as a link in one of our responses. We’ve removed the tweet and are investigating. — US Airways (@USAirways) April 14, 2014
And here we thought United was the airline that wanted to thank us for “flying the friendly skies,” as it were.
Sept. 11 is at the top of the list of calendar days on which brands should avoid tweeting altogether. There’s really no way to square the circle of hawking commercial products on a day when thousands of people died simply because they lived in a democratic, capitalist society. Even still, on Sept. 11, 2014, Fleshlight, the purveyors of fake vaginas and real class, tweeted this: Alfred Maskeroni, digital director for design at Adweek, was flabbergasted that Fleshlight had failed to learn the lessons of its 9/11-besmirching predecessors. “Just when we thought AT&T and Spaghetti O’s taught brands that inserting their products into tweeted artwork attempting to memorialize 9/11 was downright unacceptable, this year we got brands that thought that as long as the art was respectful, the public would totally ignore the inappropriate messenger,” Maskeroni told the Kernel. When we initially reported on the tweet, we didn’t think the Internet’s reactions could get better than penetrating analysis like this:
We were wrong, because, as it turned out, crassness wasn’t the only mistake Fleshlight made with that flag cemetery photo.
Actually, it’s about ethics in photojournalism.
Compared to selling artificial vaginas on 9/11 and tweeting obscene photos at angry customers, IHOP’s crimes aren’t actually that bad. In fact, their appearance on this list is more of a palette-cleanser than a true competitor to the other entries. Nonetheless, their crimes must be recognized and called out all the same. IHOP is guilty of cringeworthy co-option. Its targets? “Bae” and “on fleek.”
Just spooning my bae. Off of the plate. And it’s pancakes. — IHOP (@IHOP) November 5, 2014
@MoodyHuxtable We’re here, bae.
— IHOP (@IHOP) November 2, 2014
Pancakes on fleek.
— IHOP (@IHOP) October 21, 2014
(This one actually got incredible engagement, probably because it was IHOP’s first use of the term in a non-reply tweet. This meant that it appeared in the feeds of all the pancake-hungry journalists starving for content.)
@kdtheog always on fleek
— IHOP (@IHOP) November 5, 2014
Let’s be honest: “Bae” and “on fleek” are not really words. They’re abominations of the English language. But they’ve entered the lexicon all the same, however informally and unfortunately. And while brands may be tempted to co-opt hip lingo like this, they should respect the linguistic divide between their world and ours. We have casual convos with besties. They have interactions with valued customers.
The co-option of memes knows no end. If it goes too far, this act of brand malpractice can actually kill a meme. Luckily, the venerable sign bunny is impervious to death. He/she/it laughs off your pathetic attempts to dilute the goodness of rabbit messaging. Still, many brands tried their best to drive that sign into the ground.
|￣￣￣￣￣￣￣￣￣￣| | I’m here | | for the cookies! | | ＿＿＿＿＿＿＿＿＿＿| (\__/) || (•ㅅ•) || / づ
— Oreo Cookie (@Oreo) September 17, 2014
|￣￣￣￣￣￣￣| | ORANGE | | CARROT | | JUICE | | FTW | | ＿＿＿＿＿＿_ | (\__/) || (•ㅅ•) || / づ — Naked Juice (@nakedjuice) September 18, 2014
|￣￣￣￣￣ ￣| | get off | | the sidewalk | | (please) | | ＿＿＿＿＿_ | (\__/) || (•ㅅ•) || / づ
— Citi Bike (@CitiBikeNYC) September 18, 2014
|￣￣￣￣ ￣ ￣| | WEAR | | YOUR | | OWN | | SKIN | | ＿＿＿＿ ＿__| (\__/) || (•ㅅ•) || / づ — PETA (@peta) September 18, 2014
At the end of the day, the sign bunny’s survival is a testament to this simple truth:
|￣￣￣￣￣ ￣| | BUNNIES | | > | | BRANDS | | ＿＿＿＿＿_ | (\__/) || (•ㅅ•) || / づ
— Eric Geller (@ericgeller) December 3, 2014
Dave & Buster’s
Nothing tastes better with tacos than a 140-character dose of casual racism, am I right? Someone at Dave & Buster’s certainly thought so, because they tweeted this on Nov. 18: The apology was as swift as it was punctuation-free.
We sincerely apologize for the tweet that went out today our intention was never to offend anyone please accept our apology — Dave & Buster’s (@DaveandBusters) November 18, 2014
Maskeroni noted that, unlike with almost all other brand fails on this list, the politically charged the Dave & Buster’s tweet elicited unusually dichotomous responses.
It’s not delivery. It’s disaster.
“The reaction to the tweet (and all the press attention it received) is almost more interesting than the tweet itself,” he said. “There were almost equal factions denouncing Dave & Buster’s for the insensitive post as there were folks shaming those people for being too politically correct. The brand’s grammatically half-assed response didn’t exactly smooth it over.”
It’s fair to say the company got Dave & Busted.
Every single company during Sharknado madness
Sharknado was a bad, dumb movie. Its sequel was as clever as its title: Sharknado 2: The Second One. The only thing that could be worse than a third Sharknado movie is if, during the July 30 premiere of the second film, every brand in the universe debuted a timely shark-themed hot-take, mauling Twitter with bad jokes like great whites on the hunt for engagement.
— Miller Lite (@MillerLite) July 30, 2014
“Here’s a case of media and brand Twitter play that’s perfectly harmless,” Maskeroni said. He did point out, however, that it would be foolish to assume that “there weren’t lengthy meetings composing each tweet and the associated photoshoppery.”
It’s not delivery, it’s DIGIORNADO hahahaha so timely #Sharknado2TheSecondOne
— DiGiorno Pizza (@DiGiornoPizza) July 31, 2014
“Obviously,” Maskeroni said, “the premise of the movie is campy, as are the results turned in by brands, but Sharknado is a pretty ingenious template for this kind of mindless fun.” Maskeroni had to hand it to the brands that capitalized on the film’s creators’ deliberately ridiculous premise. Companies, he said, “saw the opportunity to cash in on people watching—and ultimately try to make Sharknado about them.”
These tweets give new meaning to the phrase “jump the shark.” We’re gonna need a bigger boat… to put all of these brands in before we sink it.
Sometimes, brand fails are more about technology than employees’ judgment. The Cleveland Cavaliers—and their 547,000 followers—learned this lesson on Dec. 2, when the team’s Twitter account autoposted an Instagram photo with an unfortunate caption.
— Heath (@heathdwilliams) December 2, 2014
Has the Instagram-to-Twitter auto-feed process ever produced such an unfortunate result?
Illustration by Jason Reed