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Social media disasters


For large businesses, it is now expected that they will have several social media channels, and it has become a customer service channel like no other. In the past, if someone rings in to complain then you could either deal with it or ignore it without anyone watching. Nowadays customers have a digital megaphone and the more you try to fight them the further their voice reaches.

This was a lesson learnt harshly by the team at Nestlé, when they experienced what was arguably the world’s biggest social media disaster. Unfortunately many brands have not learnt from those painful and very public lessons, otherwise they would not have made our list.


The marketing team at Nestlé are usually on the ball. The Switzerland-based company generates profit in the billions and has a host of world-famous brands such as Nescafe, KitKat, Smarties, Nesquik, Maggi and is a shareholder in L’Oreal.

Nestlé’s embarrassing episode started with a Greenpeace campaign that highlighted the company’s alleged use of palm oil products in KitKat chocolate bars. The activism group released a video and various marketing material that shows a bored office worker shredding paper, with the brand’s classic ‘have a break’ tagline. The office worker then starts opening a KitKat and instead of chocolate inside it’s an Orang-utan hand and shows the worker chewing on the bloody fingers.

It then cut to a dramatic scene with an Orang-utan and her baby stuck in the last remaining tree in a gut-wrenching scene of deforestation. Nestlé tried to have the video taken down on the grounds that it was infringing on its copyright – which stirred up people that were following the developments.

People then started posting on Nestlé’s Facebook page with a link to the video, and it was subsequently re-hosted all over various video-sharing sites to make sure it stayed up. Nestlé responded angrily and started to delete comments with a link to the video, so users started replacing their Facebook profile pictures with a doctored image of a KitKat replaced by the word ‘Killer’ and an altered image of the birds in the company’s logo to show them damaging the environment. By making it their profile picture, users could post something positive to avoid having their posts deleted and flooded the page with ‘Killer’ pictures.

Things escalated quickly from there, with Nestlé’s page moderator adopting a combative tone and engaging in angry debates with customers in Facebook comments. This just encouraged further posts by angry users, and then media outlets all over the world started reporting on Nestlé going to war with its own fan base.

Eventually someone at Nestlé saw sense and the company stopped warring in comments with user rants, and it put out a statement claiming it would no longer use palm oil from supplier Sonar Mass that Greenpeace accused of illegal rainforest clearance in Indonesia. Nestlé announced it would still use palm oil from a different company, but that it would put in place safeguards to ensure that it came from sustainable sources.


When it comes to Australian social media scandals, Qantas is right at the top of the pile. Less than a month after the airline grounded its entire fleet of international and domestic aircraft over an industrial relations dispute, it kicked off a Twitter campaign asking customers to share their ‘dream luxury in-flight experience’.

The competition told people to use a Twitter hashtag (a keyword users put on their posts so they can be tracked and searched) called #QantasLuxury. Instead of generating genuine entries, disgruntled Qantas customers, who had suffered significant delays and frustration as a result of the airline grounding, hijacked the hashtag and flooded it with complaints, snark-filled comments and jokes.

Qantas put a set of pyjamas up as the prize for the competition, which soon became part of the mockery. Rival airline Virgin Australia even got in on the action, posting a pyjama-themed tweet in the middle of the backlash.

@VirginAustralia: “We think great service is the cats pyjama’s and love providing it to you. Thanks for all your great tweets! #loveourfollowers

Alicia Kennedy, area director of social media company Meltwater, believes the company should have been tipped off before running the competition, as they received 37,000 negative tweets in 3 days after the fleet grounding. Kennedy’s analysis had the #QantasLuxury hashtag averaging approximately 130 tweets per 10 minutes at 1:30pm today – which was only 2 hours after the competition launched.

The popularity of the mockery also saw the creation of several ‘parody’ accounts, such as @QantasPR – which is not the official Qantas Airways account.


Back in 2008, Motrin (a pain relief tablet popular in the US), decided to target mothers who use slings to hold their babies. In a satirical advertisement, it referred to mothers that use the sling as making them look like an ‘official mum’ and went on to decry that it caused back pain (hence you would need Mortrin) and insinuating that people wore their babies as a fashion statement.

The advertisement enflamed mothers (and fathers) on Twitter and the marketing team at Mortrin quickly found out that the number of bloggers in the world who are also mothers is quite significant. As a result, the blogosphere was filled with a torrent of vitriol about the offending advertisement.

Eventually Motrin backed down in the face of the social media firestorm, and removed the advertisement and issued an apology.


One of the world’s most recognisable symbols is the golden arches of McDonalds. Whether you are in a foreign country, or strolling down your local neighbourhood, it’s hard to go 30 kilometres in a metropolitan area without seeing one.

The company is usually quite savvy when it comes to its marketing, and spends a lot of money to know what its customer base is thinking. A classic example of this was back in 2004 when the documentary Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock was released showing the negative health results of eating nothing but McDonalds products for 30 days. When the documentary was released, there was media coverage all over the world, but the company reacted by coming out in front of it as much as possible.

In Australia, the company flooded prime-time television with advertisements explaining how local sizes are much smaller than those in America, and said not to believe everything in the documentary that was not yet released in the country. It also went on to promote the company’s healthy choice range.

Unfortunately, Maccas wasn’t anywhere near as savvy when it came to social media. Last year, the social media team for the company came up with a Twitter campaign called #McDStories, and released a number of videos about farmers that supply beef for the company and employees that work there.

Twitter users quickly hijacked the company’s hashtag, and started flooding it with their own stories, such as @LizzieLey who wrote “While eating my Chicken McNuggets… I ponder how many lab rats had to die making them. #McDStories.”

The tweets became progressively more abusive and some of the more jarring were shared hundreds and thousands of times. One prominent tweet was by @Allice_2112 which read ‘Hospitalized for food poisoning after eating McDonalds in 1989. Never ate there again and became a vegetarian. Should have sued. #McDStories.”

Barely a few hours into the campaign, McDonalds pulled the plug on the entire campaign and deleted all of the tweets related to it, leaving the hashtag to burn out on its own. The entire incident was picked up by media outlets that are always hungry for a social media scandal.


The top two supermarkets in Australia are not high on the popularity list lately. For the last couple of years the two have been embroiled in a price war, that brings down costs for consumers in the short term, but stings producers that are forced to sell their stock at massive discounts and take losses. This has a flow-on effect on the industry as a whole and employees of those producers.

Easily the most famous area where Woolworths and Coles are going head-to-head is in milk products, but it has spilled over to bread, alcohol and various other items. It was no surprise then, that a campaign by the company’s marketing team for Twitter followers to finish the sentence ‘In my house it’s a crime not to buy ______” was quickly hijacked by unhappy customers.

The hashtag was quickly overwhelmed with people complaining about the effect of the milk price war on producers, and Coles brand products in general. In fairness, the social media team behind the account came out and followed the tweet up with “It’s a social media crime not to… finish a sentence yourself,” and went on to claim that the post was not meant for Twitter.

This causes the story to go further than it normally would have, as many critics believed that Coles wasn’t owning up to the mistake and was trying to pretend it didn’t mean to start the campaign.

Kyle Sandilands

Radio station 2DayFM’s social media team did not have anything to do with the backlash it copped due to shock-jock Kyle Sandilands. But the resulting fallout really deserves a mention when it comes to social media disasters.

The scandal originated when Alison Stephenson, a journalist from, filed a story about Sandilands’s new television show, A Night With The Stars. The article contained less-than-favourable comments made by viewers on social media network Twitter, and tracked the ratings drop-off the show experienced.

Sandilands took offence to the article, and lashed out at Stephenson on his breakfast program that airs on 2DayFM, a member of the Austereo network. The comments were vulgar, making negative references to Stephenson’s appearance.

Kyle’s comments triggered a wave of public outrage and widespread media coverage, with an online petition calling for sponsors to abandon the Kyle & Jackie-O show.

Using the Twitter hashtag #VileKyle, users of the social media network were able to voice their displeasure over the shock jock’s comments. This grew rapidly as word spread, and was soon being used to target the social media presences of the show’s sponsors – sending a massive wave of complaints to each one and flooding their Twitter and Facebook pages.

The first company to withdraw its advertising agreements was Holden, formerly a major sponsor of the show, and this was soon followed by Fantastic Furniture, Harvey Norman, Crazy Johns, Blackmores, and Telstra.

As one brand backed down in the face of the public opposition, the outraged Twitter and Facebook users moved onto the next one, continuing the uproar until that brand pulled its advertising dollars out of the Kyle & Jackie-O show as well. Eventually 2DayFM launched an investigation into the incident, issued apologies, and it became another blemish on the radio presenter’s notorious career.

Employee danger

While it wasn’t the fault of the company’s social media team, a pair of employee’s at a Domino’s Pizza in the United States filmed themselves putting cheese up their noses and putting nasal mucus on food. They posted it on YouTube and the pizza company took a severe hit to its reputation. The employees were promptly fired.

Active users

One of the problems with comparing social networks is the amount of people that have made an account and don’t use it anymore. If you just counted the sheer number of accounts that exist, then MySpace would still be a major player. The team at Global Web Index likes to track how active they are, by only comparing accounts that are actively posting. According to Global Web Index, the top 3 active networks: Facebook 693 million active Google+ 343 million active Twitter 288 million active It’s important to note that Global Web Index only looks at data from those aged between 16 and 64.


Kate vanderVoort

Kate vanderVoort is a social media specialist and CEO of Social Mediology and we asked her how you can avoid having your Twitter hashtag (a keyword users put on their posts so they can be tracked and searched) taken over.

1. Stay away from emotive topics. If you have any negative sentiment about your brand online already, you need to think through any cheeky or clever campaigns very carefully. If people feel negatively about your brand, any campaign aimed at talking yourself up or making you look good, will quickly be hijacked. Keep the focus on what you do well or things that evoke a positive emotion. In times of crisis, keep it simple. Make it about your followers, not about you.

2. Don’t use promoted Tweets. If your brand is controversial or experiencing negative sentiment, placing your brand front and centre for the world to comment on is asking for a hashtag hijacking. If you can afford promoted Tweets, save these campaigns for the good times – when you have a new product launch, a success story or a tested campaign that is warmly received.

3. Make your campaign focused and specific. McDonalds’ campaign was too vague and encouraged the whole Twitterverse to have an opinion. Knowing that they have many people who dislike their company and their products, this is an open invitation for their detractors to open fire.

4. Don’t backtrack. Once you have launched a campaign, you are best to ride the wave – the good and the bad. When things take on a life of their own, and the originator deletes it, it just makes people more determined. This advice doesn’t take individual circumstances into account and is just how we approach it. McDonalds obviously has a strategy that if it goes pear-shaped, pull it down.

If your campaign receives negative comments or criticism, focus on shifting the sentiment rather than removing the campaign. If you shift the focus onto something more positive, people will forget. It also shows that you have conviction in your brand and are not afraid of active debate or receiving feedback. Just make sure that you listen to the feedback, acknowledge it and then do something about it (if appropriate).

Often these social media ‘disasters’ only become known to those outside of Twitter because mainstream media picks up the story or the social media industry starts commentating in large numbers.

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