Thanks to social media, marketing mishaps can go viral with a single touch. Some of the world's biggest brands missed the mark in 2012, writes Nicola Kemp.
1. Lance Armstrong forces Nike U-turn
It was one of the most inspiring stories of recent sporting history: having recovered from testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain, Lance Armstrong went on to win the world's most famous cycle race, the Tour de France. He set up the Livestrong foundation in 1997, to inspire others battling the disease. This also spawned the eponymous yellow charity wristbands, sold by his sponsor, Nike.
Armstrong had been dogged for years by allegations that he cheated his way to the top. Like many fans, however, Nike simply didn't want to believe them. Hence the sportswear brand initially indicated it would stand by its superstar amid a flurry of headlines that he had regularly used performance-enhancing drugs.
In a subsequent statement, Nike said that it had been misled by Armstrong, and did not 'condone the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs'. It was a volte-face that must have been acutely embarrassing for a brand with ties to high-performance sports.
While sporting pundits and brand analysts have scrambled to quantify the damage to the Nike brand, most consumers were simply disappointed. It turned out that Armstrong's inspiring sporting journey really was just too good to be true.
2. Brands use Hurricane Sandy as a sales opportunity
It was a natural disaster that delivered unfathomable tragedy for many US citizens. Yet, for American Apparel, it appeared that Hurricane Sandy making landfall was nothing more than a marketing opportunity.
The retailer sent out an email blast promoting a “Hurricane Sandy Sale” offering consumers 20% off for the 36 hours “in case you're bored during the storm.” Unfortunately, this was no lone example of the most crass and insensitive type of marketing of 2012. Gap took to its Twitter account to declare: “All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We'll be doing lots of Gap.com shopping today. How about you?”
3. Starbucks faces taxing questions
The shine was taken off the arrival of Starbucks' Christmas cups last month amid reports that the coffee company had paid no tax on its UK earnings for the past three years after recording annual losses.
However, Reuters reported that US executives had claimed in telephone calls with investors that the UK business was, in fact, profitable.
Starbucks is one of many companies facing pressure for using tax-avoidance mechanisms. Big brands such as Top Shop, Amazon, Google, and Vodafone have also been on the receiving end of consumer protests about the issue.
Margaret Hodge, who chairs the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, told Parliament in October that Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, and Starbucks had, in total, avoided nearly £900 million of tax.
All of this presents a huge headache to marketers. The fact is that most consumers do not care whether tax loopholes and complicated offshore financing arrangements are legal. It simply doesn't sit well at a time when many households are facing significant financial pressures.
4. Asda is hauled over the coals for “sexist” ad
Consumers would be forgiven for wondering whether they had been transported back to the 1950s when Asda unveiled its Christmas ad: a hollowed-out, somewhat soulless homage to the overworked mother. Featuring a stressed-out woman rushing around in the run-up to the Christmas dinner, before finally sitting down to be asked “What's for tea, love?” by her other half, the ad prompted more than 1,000 comments on parenting website Mumsnet and a flurry of complaints to the UK Advertising Standards Authority. The ad cliche of the “martyr mom” is, it seems, finally past its sell-by date.
5. Google caught snooping with Street View
Google was in the spotlight for the wrong reasons again this year in the wake of an inquiry into claims that its Street View cars were snooping on UK citizens. The scandal came two years after Google first admitted stealing fragments of households' personal data, which it claimed had been a mistake. The Street View cars downloaded emails, text messages, photographs, and documents from local Wi-Fi networks as they photographed virtually every road. Despite assurances from Google that it did not want or intend to use the data, nor had it used it in any products or services, the revelation caused a barrage of negative press. In short, the company that promised to “do no evil” looked rather sinister.
6. McDStories: When a hashtag becomes a bashtag
The past 12 months have been littered with social-media “fails,” as brands embracing the medium's power seemed to line up to fall flat on their face. The McDonald's #McDStories campaign was perhaps the biggest Twitter marketing disaster of 2012. Despite the fast-food chain attempting to pull the campaign within two hours, its detractors are still using the hashtag to vent their frustration with the brand.
The campaign produced such Twitter McNuggets as “I haven't been to McDonald's in years, because I'd rather eat my own diarrhea” and “Watching a classmate projectile vomit his food all over the restaurant during a sixth-grade trip.”
Social media has a powerful amplifying effect but, just like any marketing platform, its success is not a foregone conclusion. If 2012 has taught marketers and media commentators anything, it is that social media engenders a mob mentality. This has helped create an environment where individual tweeters are able to feel no responsibility for the impact of their 140 characters.
7. Euro 2012 sponsors on red alert amid racism scandal
The dark side of the beautiful game was put into sharp focus as the European Football Championships was almost overshadowed by concerns over racism. The Panorama documentary Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate, which aired shortly before the start of the tournament, highlighted the issue of racism and anti-Semitism in host countries Ukraine and Poland. UEFA moved to stem concerns by placing its “Respect” campaign at the heart of the tournament. However, for sponsors, it put their association with the event in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
8. LOCOG clamps down on small businesses
The drive to protect official Olympics sponsors from ambush marketing is rooted in economic necessity. However, the flurry of articles on “brand police” telling butchers and bakers to remove representations of the Olympic rings from their shop windows was counterproductive and helped engender a climate where sponsors were the default scapegoat for empty seats at Olympic Games' venues. Rights-holders must strike the right balance between protecting their assets and appearing as “fat cats” at odds with consumers. In a global sporting event such as the Olympics, brands should take better note of the public mood.
9. Yahoo CEO lies on his CV
If you think you had a bad year in 2012, spare a thought for Scott Thompson. In January, he left his post as head of eBay's PayPal unit to become the chief executive of Yahoo. Fast-forward to May, and activist shareholders revealed that an entry on his CV, claiming he had a bachelor's degree in computer science, was inaccurate; less than two weeks later he left the company. It was an excruciatingly public and embarrassing series of events.
Thompson apologized for the scandal in an email to staff, in which he wrote: “We have all been working very hard to move the company forward and this has had the opposite effect. For that, I take full responsibility, and I want to apologize to you.”
However, Thompson was not banished from Silicon Valley – just two months later he resurfaced as chief executive of online-shopping service ShopRunner. Perhaps 2013 will be a better year for Thompson.
10. Ryanair boss: “Holidays are a complete waste of time”
It wouldn't be a proper review of marketing mishaps without paying tribute to the airline industry's very own Gerald Ratner: Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary.
In October of this year, the headline-grabbing boss of the no-frills airline told business magazine Management Today: “Holidays are a complete waste of time. I do it because I have a wife and four children who insist that I have to go away every year, otherwise they will be traumatized.”
O'Leary, who went on to describe himself as “the most underpaid and underappreciated airline boss in Europe” is known for his outspoken views. Critics might argue that holidays are indeed a waste of time - if left to travel with no-frills airlines such as his.
This article first appeared on the website of Marketing, the sister publication of PRWeek at Haymarket Media.