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Howard Tullman
Yes, you can catch a viral wave, at least for a couple of hot minutes. But the downside for your brand can be ugly, and long lasting.

7-Mar-23 – In the world of wishful thinkers, there are no creatives or account managers more clearly and utterly deluded than the ad agency mavens and the CPG [consumer packaged goods] brand stewards who are trying to control the flood of supportive social media that they build and regularly unleash.

They’re assisted, aided, and abetted by the allegedly authentic behaviors of the various celebrities and social media “influencers” whom they regard as their junior partners in these fruitless and deeply flawed labors. A few of these ventures work out, most don’t, and none last for more than a few fleeting moments.


Ask Matt Damon (left) about his crypto ads sometime or Matthew McConaughey about his Salesforce endorsements where he’s still being paid millions while the company craters and lays off hundreds of workers.

Even assuming that anyone found the proclamations and protestations of these influencers to be credible, much less authentic – which doesn’t actually seem to matter any longer in an artificial world where everyone’s supposedly in on the joke – it’s still a very precarious and unpredictable journey.

Talk about taking a ride on the tiger’s back. It’s hard to know which aphorism is more fitting here but, for sure, the warning that “when you teach a bear to dance, you don’t get to tell it when to stop” does a decent job of describing a world of arrogant, affluent, and aggressive self-promoters whose only real interest is in serving themselves.

I’m actually most impressed by the ability of all of these schlock merchants and sycophants to sell their stories and strategies with a straight face, considering how little reason anyone would have to believe that they know what they’re talking about. The ad world’s continued ability to conflate notoriety with knowledge is amazing. These social promotion projects are very risky bets on projected business outcomes which – even when the volume of responses is better than expected – often come with unforeseen consequences and results that ultimately are bad for almost everyone.

It’s hard to know which aphorism is more fitting here but, for sure, the warning that ‘when you teach a bear to dance, you don’t get to tell it when to stop’ does a decent job of describing a world of arrogant, affluent, and aggressive self-promoters whose only real interest is in serving themselves.

The advertising and marketing world believes that social media works even if no one really understands or can actually explain how. They think they need to be in the game with their clients’ brands, if for no other good reason than simply that everyone else is doing it as well. We do know that every such undertaking has both intended and unintended consequences. The intended consequences sometimes happen. The unintended consequences always happen.

Everyone in the ad business also has their favorite cautionary examples of ads, promos, and stunts that have blown up in the client’s face. In fact, there are now some pretty effective and substantial tools and systems being developed to try to anticipate, identify, and avoid similar mishaps in the future. Dumbstruck and Nexus AI are just two examples of companies trying to help their clients avoid these kinds of problems.

Most of the young ad folks who hold themselves out as next-gen experts and savants among the savages haven’t a clue about the likely economic impacts of any of the campaigns, marketing blitzes, or other initiatives they sell to their unsuspecting clients and CMOs [chief marketing officer]. It’s also abundantly clear that they really don’t care much about the final and regularly unfortunate results. They know that they can get away with whatever because, unlike direct marketing, brand marketing is rarely, if ever, measured. As a result, there are few documented successes or failures, but always consequences.

The only worst thing you can do and the thing most certain to provide an eventual embarrassment and a substantial amount of egg-on-face is when the proffered program includes a heavy bet on a single talent, influencer, or celebrity who is almost guaranteed to blow up in no time at all. The lifelong rule of the media sword is that if they’ve built you up, they’ll be more than happy to also bring you down when the slightest opportunity arises.

What’s really interesting in the midst of these ongoing circuses is how even experienced and intelligent businesspeople fail to realize the second- and third-order detrimental impacts these undertakings can have on their underlying businesses in the new reality of social shaming, cancel culture, and media manipulation and amplification. They seem to get stuck on the proposition that the most they can lose are the dollars spent on the overall creative, production, and media costs of a given campaign.

However, the smartest marketers have now learned from a parade of horrible outcomes by such major brands as Pepsi, Heineken, Gucci, H&M, and Peloton that there’s also a massive additional cleanup cost in terms of reputational damage and repair once a program blows up, not to mention the serious prospect of your stock price taking a hit.

The news media is always drawn to conflict, outrage, and failure. Worse yet, by design and by algorithm, social media elevates the worst, most divisive content – criticism, crisis, complaint, and competition – which are presumed to be the most shareable as well. That’s not even the end of the damage control story, which is what senior managers and marketing execs looking for a quick hit, media attention, and a sales bump are still missing.

When you expose your business operations and your credibility to the vagaries of the crowd and turn the world loose on your people, there’s really no end to the upsets, disruptions, and damage that can be done, and quickly.

Photo by Andrea Migliarini

We see new examples on a weekly basis and yet the message seems to continually be missed. Taco Bell was a fairly recent victim of social media excess when it paired up with a very popular musician to push and promote one of its menu items. The rush of interest and volume was so substantial and immediate that the promotion needed to be suspended because the local outlets couldn’t handle the flow. Instead of delighted customers and growing sales, they ended up with disappointed fans and overwhelmed team members.

As Yogi Berra, among other philosophers, noted: it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

Another recent example of a vendor needing to be very careful about what they wished for was slightly more convoluted because instead of Chipotle “working the web”, the company got whipsawed and surprised when two food enthusiasts “invented” a new Chipotle offering (not on the menu or in the system) and promoted it on TikTok. This led to a rash of surprise orders that completely overwhelmed Chipotle’s staff and their production system, which isn’t designed or equipped to handle bespoke burritos.

Here again, the pain and aggravation was shared both inside the company and by unhappy customers. Too much of a good thing can be just as bad as not enough, especially in the fast-food business.

But the real takeaway (no pun intended) for prudent business owners and operators is to be careful and even a little conservative before you unleash these uncertain social media storms – for better or for worse – on your business and your team members. Be sure to question the authors and architects of these undertakings and remember that the last person you want to take advice from, in most cases, is someone who doesn’t have to live with the consequences.