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5 Top Marketing Disasters of 2012 and the Lessons They Teach Us

2012 was a year brimming with new movies, music, media and marketing. It was also a year brimming with Marketing Fails. We’d be remiss to not learn from the mistakes of others…especially in the high stakes game of marketing. Let’s take a look at 2012’s biggest marketing fails and see if we can’t learn something from them.


The Fail:

An international marketing agency’s “innovation” unit — BBH Labs — decided it would be a great idea to find homeless men willing to wear t-shirts and become mobile hotspots for last year’s SXSW. “Volunteers” were paid $20 per day (or $2.50 an hour) to provide internet access to likely well-off attendees of the event. They called the project “Homeless Hotspots” (the site has since been taken down) and obviously didn’t realize they were facilitating—as Wired Blogger Tim Carmody put it—“something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.”


The Lesson:

Humans don’t exist for your pleasure/profit. The further our society dives into a technology filled world, the more sacred our humanity will become. Marketers have to understand that they are providing a product to people. You can’t serve Wi-fi to well-off technophiles on a human platter. It’s also important to understand your market: Did this agency really believe that progressivly minded SXSW attendees would be okay with this “experiment?”  It’s always important to use common sense—something BBH dropped the ball on.


The Fail:

McDonalds initiated a twitter campaign using the hashtag #McDStories in an attempt to humanize their brand through the farmers that produce their food products. Unfortunately for them, there was a gang of Twitter users waiting to steal the hashtag like the Hamburglar would a sack of hamburgers. What followed was a brutal brand assault with topics ranging from drug and alcohol use, the environmental/health impacts of McDonald’s and a ton of tweets comparing the food to urine/vomit/fecal matter. Needless to say, it wasn’t a great day under the golden arches.

mcdstories1The Lesson:

McDonalds showed the world why Twitter can be such a dangerous frontier. Marketers must make calculated decisions and understand the possible negative side effects when using social landscape. Just like with Wendy’s failed #heresthebeef hashtag, these massive brands have to realize they’re vulnerable and those who are their biggest enemies will always attack given the chance. The most vulnerable brands are those with ethical weaknesses, especially in the food industry, as Americans are becoming more educated and vocal about the products available.


Express gets an A+ for their social media strategy, but they’re advertising plan… not so much.

The Fail:

Express utilized an “in-image advertising” feature on Yahoo! that allows for ads to be incorporated into images. The technology’s intent—beyond driving sales—is to show customers how to get the look of their favorite celebrities, artists, etc. Express was caught in the crossfire, however, when the technology was used on an image of “a man holding spent .50 calibre shells…following an attack by Taliban militants”. The ad prompted readers to “get the look” of the man, who was wearing a scarf, by purchasing a similar scarf from Express. Obviously Express was a victim of circumstance, but the blunder calls in to question how wise it is to put so much power into the hands of technology, especially in this situation.


The Lesson:

Technology isn’t perfect and must be properly managed. Marketers are relying on technology to serve ads now more than ever before and situations like this are becoming commonplace. Ads get served next to stories on new sites all the time that are inappropriate next to the subject matter.


The Fail:

Nokia released a viral video to show off its new Lumia 920’s optical image stabilization (OIS). The problem is, instead of using the technology they were selling, they had a professional video crew. This fact was pointed out by an internet user who identified the reflection of a camera crew in the reflection of a parked van. Of course the internet didn’t like being taken for fools.

The Lesson:

Honesty is the best policy and you can’t kid a kidder. Brands should always be aware that somewhere in the deepest, darkest depths of the interwebz lies someone who would love nothing more than to expose dishonesty like Nokia demonstrated. The sad part is critics actually loved the technology when they tested it. Nokia should have showed confidence in their product and been honest from the get go.

Pizza Hut

The Fail:

The 2012 Election was overly pizza-centric thanks to the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. All this hubbub about everyone’s favorite food made Pizza Hut marketers see dollar signs. In a questionable decision, Pizza Hut released a YouTube video inviting attendees of the upcoming town hall style presidential debate to ask the question that was of course on every American’s mind: Do you prefer Sausage or Pepperoni? Everyone quickly piled onto Pizza Hut for attempting to trivialize such an important event for what little return the stunt may have garnered leaving Pizza Hut marketers with sauce on their faces.


The Lesson:

The Internet takes some things seriously. Yes, it’s mostly about cats and inappropriate jokes, but the internet does hold some things sacred. It can also be argued it also has a lot to do with who it’s coming from. Pizza Hut is viewed as a large and powerful brand. Such a behemoth doesn’t have the leisure to pull stunts like that, like a smaller niche brand might get away with.

The point isn’t for marketers to be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are good. They are a sign of progress and innovation. The point is to understand this ever evolving society, from every angle. We aren’t the same consumers we were 10 years ago. The very platform marketers focus on — the Internet — is a pivotal driver of this change and we must embrace it or die. We must learn from our mistakes and welcome the future. That is what wise marketers do. I’ll leave you with this fitting quote by Winston Churchill:

“All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from them.”

About the author

Jay York