Racheal Lee
Mar 14, 2013

When social media attacks: Hijacking of brand messages and what to do about it

A side effect of the 'always-on' age is that even the best-intentioned campaigns and CSR efforts can be instantly hijacked, remixed, and then amplified in harshly critical ways. A recent example involving Coca-Cola presents some lessons.

While brands benefit from social-media sharing, this media consumption pattern has also posed a threat to brands due to its amplification effects. Netizens hijacking and even faking brands’ marketing communications efforts.

For example, a Twitter hashtag campaign for Starbucks in December 2012 was hijacked by critics angry about the brand's tax-avoidance and labour policies in the UK.

Last year, Shell was the 'victim' of a hoax that included a fake video, a fake press release and a fake website. The effort was jointly planned by environmental group Greenpeace, activist organisation Yes Lab and members of the Occupy Wall Street movement to rally against Shell’s Arctic drilling programme.

But even when the people remixing a brand's communications are less organised and purposeful, the impact can be significant. Consumers both within and outside the intended target may think the fake advertising or meme-altered communication is the actual material from the brand. A recent example is Coca-Cola’s 'Coming Together' obesity ad, which debuted in the United States in January.

The two-minute spot (above) was intended as a positive move, to show Coca-Cola was engaged in the issue of rising obesity. In the TVC, the brand said that it was working to fight obesity by offering consumers low-or-no calorie beverages and smaller portion sizes. It also stated that  “all calories count, no matter where they come from” and “if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight” (1:32 in the above video).

Activists and regular consumers reacted negatively towards the ad. A revamped ad, called 'The honest Coca-Cola obesity commercial' (below) appeared two days later, with the same two-minute video but a different voiceover. The irony? The spoof version received almost twice as many views as the original one on Coca-Cola's official YouTube channel.


While people in North America would have seen the real TVC on television, many people outside the United States might have thought the fake video to be original Coca-Cola material. Steve Yi, chief strategy officer at Grey Group Korea, said the fake video looks quite professional because the audio is timed fairly well with the video.

He added that intellectual property and copyright protection control online has a long way to go, as nothing is unhackable. But still, the brand might have known better.

“If you put official content in social media, then you have to expect some attacking, especially on controversial and political topics, such as alcohol brands speaking out against drunk driving,” Yi told Campaign Asia-Pacific. “Personally, Coke should have stayed away from this topic. You don’t see fast-food chains speaking out against obesity in a social responsibility campaign because it’s just setting yourself up to ridicule from social-media politicos.”

“There are thousands of campaigns against drinking, but has that really stopped young people from drinking beer?" he added. "Sometimes, doing nothing is probably not such a bad thing, especially on hot-button topics like obesity.”

The original “Coming Together” spot appears to be a CSR piece, but industry experts said it has to be perceived as genuine and not patronising, as CSR efforts and communications are always put under public scrutiny.

Ryan Lim, business director at Blugrapes, said that incident was made worse because the brand did not seem genuine about its role in obesity, and came across as hypocritical.

“It’s almost like a cigarette manufacturer warning us that smoking is bad, but continues to sell and market it," he said. "As a result, the consumers used the same platform on social media to challenge their message, with disastrous effect to Coke. Especially on social media, being genuine and opaque is vital for building relationships.”

Coca-Cola seems to have gone silent on the issue, which Lim noted as another mistake; the brand should have responded by now, as it is an attack to the brand and its credibility, and attacks should never be allowed to continue unchecked.

A response should be made within an hour of an attack, he said. Showing concern for the accusation, starting an internal investigation and showing an appropriately humble and somewhat apologetic stance are what's needed in such circumstances.

Brands must always remember that all claims are under constant and open public scrutiny, Lim said, adding that any claims made should therefore be easily justified, genuine and believable.

Yi also warned that brands should not overreach and try to preach about things that are antithetical to how people perceive the brand core. Consumer brands like Coca-Cola are about personal enjoyment, and they should stay away from hot-button socio-political subjects.

“There are very few people on earth that think Coke makes you healthy, but they enjoy it anyways,” he said. “Guilty pleasures are OK with everyone, and no one minds talking about it in that manner. Preaching something you’re not, in social media, is very dangerous and likely to face backlashes like this video. At least the person didn’t add ugly visuals."

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