Wal-Mart embraces rally by pranksters

Inviting consumers to participate in a campaign is a great way to build brand awareness, but when the initiative is hosted somewhere as unpredictable and uncontrollable as the Internet, things don't always go as planned.

Inviting consumers to participate in a campaign is a great way to build brand awareness, but when the initiative is hosted somewhere as unpredictable and uncontrollable as the Internet, things don't always go as planned.

Wal-Mart learned about the unruly nature of social media when a recent promotion was hijacked by two Internet pranksters. The retail giant launched a contest in June with Sheets Energy Strips, asking consumers to “like” their local Walmart store's Facebook page by July 16 to win a visit from rapper Pitbull to that location. Two members of the comedy website SomethingAwful.com, David Thorpe and Jon Hendren, created their own Twitter campaign, #ExilePitbull, to rally consumers to vote for the store in Kodiak, AK, the most remote Walmart in the US.

When the prank launched at the end of June, the Kodiak Walmart page had about 24,000 likes. That number jumped to more than 70,000 by the last day of voting. Pitbull and Wal-Mart went along with the joke. The singer invited Thorpe to join him in Alaska, tweeting, “I hear there's bear repellent at Kodiak, Alaska @walmartspecials.”

PR Play rating:

1. Clueless
2. Ill-advised
3. On the right track
4. Savvy
5. Ingenious

Sarah Spencer, director of corporate communications at Wal-Mart, responded positively to the takeover by telling media, “I know Pitbull is hoping his Miami Walmart shoppers start liking their Facebook page.” She affirmed, “He's definitely coming to Kodiak if that store wins.”

Wal-Mart deserves a round of applause for how it reacted to the campaign hijacking. Rather than shutting it down or disqualifying far-away stores, the retailer joined in on the joke, talking to the media and interacting with fans in the social space. The company should plan more thoroughly for possible social media highjinks. But all in all, Wal-Mart reacted to the issue quickly and without causing more drama – and it drew some attention to a Walmart store that would have never crossed most consumers' minds.

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