Madison Avenue advertising agencies happily spend millions of their fast food clients’ dollars to create the illusion that their brand is universally revered, their burgers are so huge that they need two hands to hold and every well-dressed, fit actor can endlessly munch on them without ever sprouting a molecule of cellulite.

Unfortunately, reality has a nasty way of impinging onto the ad agencies’ chimerical Neverland when the frontiers of social media are crossed. Facing the necessity of using social media to promote their brand, McDonald’s learned the hard way that once the message is cast out in the sea of social media, you not only lose control of it, but you also might see your brand severely mocked and devalued.

Here’s what happened – and what to learn from it.
#McDStories Turned into a Slam-Fest Spectacular

Fast food giant McDonald’s recently began promoting the #McDStories Twitter hashtag to encourage their social media-using consumers to share their experiences with the restaurant chain. The hashtag exploded in popularity, but much of the content was not exactly what Leo Burnett, the company’s ad agency, had naively expected.

Instead of glowing posts about the scrumptiousness of the famous “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun” they received a litany of blasts such as:

  • @Muzzafuzza: “I haven’t been to McDonalds in years, because I’d rather eat my own diarrhea”
  • @lyricalbw: “the French fries had insects called silverfish fried to them”
  • @nvnikk: “it’s mutated cancer food”
  • @michellevegan: “McDonalds scalds baby chicks alive for nuggets”
  • @MikeinTulsa “the hamburgers are made out of dogs”

Putting out the Social Media Fire with Gasoline

The posts by the restaurant, which tried to get the message back on topic, were not only pathetic McFails but swiftly became the fodder of additional Twitter ridicule. Moronic posts with forced “hip” abbreviations such as “When u make something w/pride, people can taste it” and “U may have seen a rumor that r McNuggets r made from mechanically separated chicken” only served to put out the social media fire with gasoline.

Whoever was posting that poppycock for McDonald’s deserves to be kicked out of their cushy corner office and return to the burger grill from whence they came.

Papa John’s Pizza’s Apologies for “lady chinky eyes”

#McDStories was not the first fast food hashtag to run off the tracks. Wendy’s attempt to promote the #HeresTheBeef hashtag last year resulted in an avalanche of sexual innuendo completely unrelated to the business of selling burgers. Other companies such as Coca-Cola and Chrysler have recently had to face social media campaigns that inadvertently went rogue.

When a New York City employee at Papa John’s Pizza handed over a receipt where he had identified a customer as “lady chinky eyes,” the apologies from the corporate office became a Twitter torrent.

Realize that “On The Internet Everybody Knows Everything & Nobody Likes Anything”

The lesson that should have been learned by Leo Burnett and anyone else who approaches social media promotions with a similar Pollyannaish attitude is that you can’t count on 100% of your customers being unequivocally placid supporters of your brand. In fact, the disparagers can generally be counted upon to be the most vociferous posters.

Like hyenas pouncing on an injured prey, the vilifiers will gang up on a brand’s social media presence, massively outweighing any attempts to place a positive spin on the ballooning public relations disaster. The defamers won’t even let minor aspects such as truth and facts get in their way, as they will engage in calumny on a monumental scale just to watch your brand bleed.

Businesses involved in social media campaigns are in the uncomfortable position of having to engage their customers through the channel preferred by many while fearing that their next innocuous post could trigger a feeding frenzy. The best policy is always to provide authentic, authoritative and responsible content and have a plan to respond quickly and directly when something goes wrong.