12 times brands went viral for the wrong reasons

It’s common nowadays to create a post, or a campaign having as an ultimate goal to make it viral, and this can be the online measurement of success for many creators.

Many brands create content setting virality as their ROI, hoping that a secret formula will provide them with the much-desired 15 minutes of fame.

However, as users suffer from an attention span of just 8 seconds and with a plethora of available content to be consumed, is virality still important?

‘Going viral’ is not a content strategy

Yes, it’s great to have a viral post and it may actually increase your engagement, your followers, your reach and even your leads, but this shouldn’t be a goal on its own when creating content.

Virality is just a bonus added to the quality (or even the quantity) of your content.


Image source: pixabay, CC0

It’s important to stay focused in creating unique, interesting, relevant, inspiring, authentic, or even entertaining content, while still keeping in mind your target audience and your set goals.

An effective content strategy helps you aim for long-term success, with virality serving as a bonus achievement, which you should be happy to welcome.

The rise of negative virality

There is an increase in negative virality on the internet and it has affected the online reputation of many brands.

This rise can be attributed to the human psychology and the way we react to negative stories, bad news, brand fails, or any other controversy.

Although people prefer reading positive stories, it’s the anger that serves as a driving force to make us share a negative story, and this leads to the outrage that we frequently come across on social media.

Users are inclined to spread the negative virality, which may create big problems for brands that are not ready to respond to it by the time it starts spreading.

There is no such thing as bad publicity and it might be true if a brand knows how to overturn a negative situation

However, not every viral story has a happy ending and here are several different examples to consider.

When virality goes wrong

1. Puppy Monkey

Mountain Dew decided to stand out from other Super Bowl commercials this year and the Puppy Monkey Baby led them to the desired virality. With more than 22 million views on its Youtube channel and 65,000 mentions of the #PuppyMonkeyBaby hashtag, the campaign is certainly considered successful.

The popularity of the commercial derives from the commercial’s main character, a combination of a puppy, a monkey, and a baby, which turned out into a nightmare for many people.

giphy (57)

It’s interesting to note that 54% of the buzz for #PuppyMonkeyBaby was negative, which means that the majority of people who talked about it didn’t necessarily like it.

In fact, they even felt terrified.

This is not exactly a case from virality that went wrong, but it makes us wonder, should virality always be positive?

2. Whole Foods

It’s impressive what a single tweet can do nowadays and #Orangegate was the proof of it.

A Twitter user posted a photo of pre-peeled oranges that were sold in Whole Foods and this led to an unexpected virality, ranging from humour to anger.

The user’s goal was to highlight the waste of plastic for this idea and the tweet ultimately gathered eight million impressions and a much-anticipated response from Whole Foods:

Definitely our mistake. These have been pulled. We hear you, and we will leave them in their natural packaging: the peel.

Whole Foods took advantage of the sudden virality and created a new image, this time with no use of plastic for the oranges. This is a clever way to overturn a bad situation without affecting the reputation of your brand.

3. Hyundai

Hyundai’s first Super Bowl ad this year had the hashtag with the most negative sentiment, as 77.6% of the tweets using #HyundaiSuperBowl were negative.

giphy (1) (1)

This was due to the appearance of Ryan Reynolds, the star of Deadpool, and the movie’s fan base, as they weren’t very happy with the way Deadpool’s Twitter account was used along with Hyundai.

Thus, this negative sentiment was not directly related to Hyundai, but the brand was aware of a possible controversy its choice of the actor would bring, which can be translated to additional social reach.


4. DiGiorno

DiGiorno pizza wanted to join a trending discussion to appeal to an extended audience back in 2014, and the virality was even better than expected, but for the least preferred reason.

They used the trending hashtag #WhyIStayed, creating the message: #WhyIStayed You had pizza.”

Although it seemed like a good idea to them, the hashtag was actually used as part of a domestic violence awareness campaign, which means that their tweet annoyed many people who rushed to indicate their lack of context.

DiGiorgo apologised several times for the incident and what we can learn from them is the importance of a research before using a trending hashtag.

5. Red Lobster

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed (and unprepared) from sudden virality, especially when everyone expects an answer from you.

When Beyonce suddenly released her new song mentioning Red Lobster, everyone was waiting for the brand’s immediate reply.

It took Red Lobster 10 hours to craft a relevant tweet, with users not being impressed by the reply, but it ultimately took advantage of the sudden popularity during the following days, both on social media and in-store marketing.

As the appraisal from such a popular influencer is worth more than any other marketing campaign, Red Lobster created posters with Beyonce in order to promote its stores and of course, her song started playing at the stores. Needless to say that the sales on the specific weekend rose 33% over last year.  

See, even a delayed response on sudden virality may lead to impressive results. All you need is to seize the opportunity.


6. #RIPTwitter

It was just a few months ago when Twitter users got furious over the rumours that Twitter is about to introduce a non-chronological timeline, which will rely on an algorithm that will sort the tweets accordingly.


Twitter users started discussing the end of Twitter and #RIPTwitter became the most popular hashtag of the day, until Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, decided to clear things out with a series of tweets.

For the record, the algorithmic timeline is now available as an option, which means that Twitter managed to let users vent and decided to strike back on it own subtle way, proving that not every outrage that takes place on social media is actually valid.

7. Starbucks

As the popularity of the brand increases, so does the virality of an outrage. Starbucks faced such a case during Christmas, when it decided to replace its yearly Christmas cups with a simpler, red version of them.  

The customers were not very happy about it, which led to numerous complaints over social networks, with  #MerryChristmasStarbucks counting 474,000 mentions over the week.


Not everyone agreed with this complaint though, with #itsjustacup also trending, reminding everyone that there’s no need to be frustrated for a coffee cup.

Starbucks preferred not to interfere on this “battle” and they were probably right, using the power of silence, even if it’s difficult to achieve it nowadays, when it’s tempting to reply back to someone mentioning you.

8. Uber

Uber probably believes that even negative publicity is still an opportunity for extended publicity and that’s how its business model grows.

The company faced another case of negative virality on New Year’s Eve, when people all over the world saw an increased charge on their way home, the so called #ubersurge.

It was Matthew Lindsay from Canada who made the story even bigger when he posted a cab ride charge of $1,114.71, which was 8.9 times higher than the regular price.

This was the beginning of a negative virality, full of similar pricey stories from Uber drivers, with Uber ultimately paying half the fare for Matthew Lindsay, although it reminded everyone that these increases during rush hours are expected and users should be aware of them.

Thus, the model hasn’t changed, they only turned around a specific complaint, asking from the users to be better informed next time they are about to complain about #ubersurge.

9. #ThanksMichelleObama

Michelle Obama wanted to help reduce childhood obesity with her initiative named “Let’s Move” and the new lunches she introduced in school meals.

Students were not very happy with them though, both for the taste and the size of the portions and this led to the trend of #ThanksMichelleObama and everyone posting a photo of the new meals.


Although we’re not sure how the first lady reacted to these, it’s still an interesting use of social media and an observation on how users behave when they are not happy with an incident in their everyday lives.

10. Walmart

Walmart can’t be happy with how things turned out two years ago during Halloween, when they introduced the category of “fat girl costumes”.

By the time this reached Twitter, users were furious with the company, spreading a word about it, while blaming the brand for being disrespectful.


The outrage made the brand delete the name of the section, but not the costumes, as they were still visible, though in a more discreet way, if a user wanted to search for them.

This was certainly not pleasant for Walmart!

11. Volkswagen

Volkswagen faced a serious problem with its online reputation after the emission scandal, as it was among the biggest cases of negative virality we’ve recently seen for a brand.

Customers all over the world used social media to express their surprise, their anger, or even their support to the extensive backlash, with negativity being prevalent.

Volkswagen tried to avoid further reactions at that time by pausing any social posts on Facebook and Twitter, until its CEO posted a public statement. This lasted more than a week, and although it might be considered a safe choice for a company dealing with such an important case, it still wasn’t pleasantly welcomed by consumers who wanted to be informed as fast as possible.

12. The unique case of Donald Trump

Donald Trump is the perfect example of the phrase “any publicity is good publicity” and he seems to handle online media perfectly, skyrocketing his popularity with his controversial views.

What makes Trump’s campaign unique is the understanding that people are driven by emotions and the fact that they’re not only sharing what they like, as negative virality is more relevant than ever.

Donald Trump keeps feeding the press with statements that cannot be unnoticed and this keeps his viral machine going on his way to the presidential elections.


You don’t have to agree with his views to be surrounded by them and that’s what makes people get more familiar with him and his beliefs.

We’re not sure whether he has read all the books from Seth Godin, but he certainly has a team knowing how to handle the principles of online marketing.

What we can learn from negative virality

All these examples help us understand how a viral post may turn really negative for a brand’s reputation, especially when it’s not handled at an early stage.

However, it’s still true that any publicity is good publicity and every brand should be able to handle such a social crisis appropriately, even at the least expected moment.

Thus, if we had to offer our own advice for a moment of negative virality here’s what we’d suggest:

  • Understand how social media works
  • Learn how to deal with a crisis
  • Take responsibility for any of your mistakes (that could have created this negative virality)
  • Be willing to turn the situation over for your own benefit
  • Don’t be afraid to laugh at it (when it’s appropriate)

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