When Social Media Users Steal Your Marketing Campaign


In May 2017, Walkers, a British potato chip brand, launched a social media campaign. Fronted by retired soccer player and television personality Gary Lineker, the company invited people to publish their selfies on Twitter with the hashtag #WalkersWave. The selfies would be automatically incorporated into a frame held up by Lineker in a video that also showed a Mexican wave in a soccer stadium. A giant digital billboard outside the National Stadium of Wales would display the selfies in real time. Winners would receive tickets to the upcoming UEFA Cup final.

It didn’t take long for trolls to join the action.

The submissions weren’t monitored, so soon people were sending in images of Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris, children’s television presenters who were found to have molested children. Other submissions included serial killers Harold Shipman and Fred West, as well as Joseph Stalin. With each submission, Gary Lineker automatically held up the image and said “Great selfie.” Walkers added the shot to its own Twitter feed.

New memes quickly followed, suggesting chaos at Walker’s marketing department.

Walker’s soon stopped the campaign and issued a statement apologizing for the offending images but the failure of WalkersWave shows one of the dangers in social media marketing campaigns. Advertising is a one-way conversation. Brands broadcast their messages and hope that audiences absorb them. Social media marketing is a two-way conversation. Brands want audiences to participate but they can’t control what those audiences say when they join the campaign.

Walkers, of course, aren’t the only brand to have run into trouble when running a social media campaign. When McDonalds asked people to describe their restaurant experiences with the hashtag #McDStories, the responses included pictures of staff putting together boxes of Happy Meals on the floor and accounts of vomiting after eating the company’s McFish burgers. Starbucks had a similar experience ten years ago when its #SpreadtheCheer campaign promised to display tweets using the hashtag at London’s Natural History Museum.

The campaign came just as the media reported that Starbucks had paid almost no tax in the UK. Many of the tweets shown on the board were insults and demands that the company pay its way.

So you’d think that companies would have learned by now. Offer user-generated content campaigns (UGC), and inevitably, users will respond by generating chaos. But the incentive to bring customers into a campaign is high. User-generated content is viral, extending the campaign’s reach for no extra cost. And engagement is better than passivity. Someone who sends in a selfie or uses the hashtag will have a closer relationship to the brand. The product is not just a picture they’ve seen in an ad or a box they’ve spotted on a supermarket shelf. It comes from an organization they’ve interacted with, spoken to, and shared an experience with.

The brand now matters to them in a way that it didn’t before.

Walkers have benefited from that association in the past. The company’s ‘Do Us a Flavour’ campaign allowed voters to pick from a selection of new flavors, and is reported to have generated an 8 percent rise in sales.

When UGC campaigns work, they can be extremely effective, producing a giant response for a relatively small investment. But they do leave the brand vulnerable to disruption.

Fighting or Playing?

A recent paper by Hong-Bich Truong, Sylvian Patrick Jesudoss, and Mike Molesworth of the Southampton, Henley, and Birmingham Business Schools respectively looks at what happens when consumers use “mischief as playful resistance to marketing in Twitter hashtag hijacking.”

UGC, the authors warn, can be a means for consumers to damage brands they don’t like through what they call “impish acts of hijacking hashtags.” They identified twelve incidents of hashtag hijacks, including #WalkersWave and #McDStories, and examined tweets that deliberately subverted the campaign’s intention or which used jokes, sarcasm or ridicule at the expense of the campaign.

The authors distinguish between two kinds of consumer target: the brand broadcasting its message; and the channel through which the message is being broadcast. The first, they argue, is hostile while the second is merely playful.

When consumers hijacked Starbucks’s campaign, for example, the content they created was aimed at the company and mentioned what the public saw as a specific failure: the coffee chain’s failure to pay more taxes. Content created in response to the McDStories campaign usually centered on the quality of the food sold in the company’s restaurants. Both responses took sharp aim at a sensitive public relations area that the brand would have preferred people ignore.

The response to the #WalkersWave campaign, however, didn’t target the product or the company’s reputation itself. Instead, participants exploited what they saw as a weakness in the brand’s marketing technique. Because no one was monitoring the images that were being uploaded, embarrassing pictures could reach a large audience very quickly. The motivation wasn’t to hurt the brand itself but to hit back at a marketing channel that’s capable of persuading large numbers of people to take a particular kind of action.

By taking over hashtags and using them to embarrass the brands that created them, consumers are able to slap the brands back into their lane, and end what the authors call “their invasion of online cultures of posting, sharing and community building.”

The public, the authors argue, sees social media campaigns as an infringement by corporations on their space. They’ll use any opportunity they can find to push back against that infringement.

“There is an imbalance of power between consumers and those who manage and coordinate brands, resulting in consumers experiencing online marketing as antagonistic, authoritative, and manipulative,” the authors say. “In this context, they grasp opportunities to transgress those rules imposed on them. In doing so, consumers can recapture power.”

Or as one Twitter user put it: “#WalkersWave has really cheered me up, love it when marketing backfires.”

For brands then, hashtag and other user-generated content campaigns present a dilemma. They turn audiences into activists, giving them a chance to take role in the company and interact with it. And they can be highly effective both in terms of reach and engagement, generating impressive returns on sales results.

But they also generate opposition and any small sign of weakness will be exploited. If there is an opportunity upend a hashtag campaign and use it to embarrass the brand, people will find it.

So what can brands to make the most of a user-generated content campaign without getting egg on their face?

Give Players a Chance to Cheat

The first decision has to be whether to launch the campaign at all. Brands with low public images, such as those in the energy sector or which have recently come under criticism—whether that negativity focuses on taxes, labor rules, customer service or anything else—should probably avoid campaigns that allow customers to share their criticisms. A hashtag campaign from a defense firm or an oil company, for example,  is like to generate even stronger anti-brand negativity than the comments that hit Starbucks.

But while the “playful” campaign that struck Walkers Crisps was  embarrassing there’s no evidence that it gave the company any lasting harm. In fact, by giving audiences a chance to participate in a joke, it may even have benefitted the brand. Gary Lineker, the former England soccer player who represents the brand, is known for his informal style. His Twitter profile describes him as “still flogging spuds.” When his home town club, Leicester City, won the Premier League in 2016, Lineker made good on his bet to present the BBC’s Match of the Day show in his underwear.

The attack on the #WalkersWave hashtag then fits with the brand. It was cheeky, funny, clever, and made with good humor. As long as the brand is seen to be able to take a joke, the attack could be seen as reinforcing its friendly image.

Companies thinking of launching a user-generated content campaign need to assume that users will hijack it. Consumers will attempt to sabotage the campaign and they may well succeed. The brand needs to be light-hearted enough for that playfulness to deepen rather than undermine the brand image. The brand needs to be one capable of laughing at itself without highlighting its products’ weaknesses.

So instead of a fast-food restaurant asking people to send in their restaurant experiences, some of which will inevitably be negative, it could ask them to submit their strangest special requests. Instead of asking people to describe their ideal luxury flight experience just as the airline grounds its fleet, it could ask them about their unusual flying necessities. The more specific the challenge, the harder it is for audiences to hijack the hashtag and the more control the brand will have over the inevitable joke responses. It can direct those responses away from the brand’s core services.

But even that approach won’t help every business. Any brand that hands some control of their marketing campaign to the public needs to be prepared for a backlash that could damage the brand, especially when they’re using social media. It’s an approach that can work well for brands that can take a joke, that are consumed in informal settings. Other brands need to be aware that they’re always taking a risk and that any weakness will be highlighted.

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