19 April 2016


4 mins read

Hashtag humiliation: the tweets that shamed a brand

Maratopia Digital Marketing Ltd

Promoting your brand on social media places it on a knife edge – one false move or a hashtag mishap and your business will suffer a media firestorm.

That’s the stark reality tackled by Jon Ronson’s most recent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a trawl through the unsavoury world of social media shaming.

In the book are stories of normal people who lost their jobs after making an off-colour joke on Twitter, lifestyle gurus whose dodgy practices were uncovered by internet journalists, and the people who can change the shamed’s fortunes via Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).

Although this collection of tales delves into the history of shaming, studying ideas of herd mentality and scandals all through human existence, it never loses its main focus – that the wild west of social media can send personal lives down the tubes.

The angry mobs of Twitter

People are angry – that’s the first thing you learn after spending five minutes on Twitter.

The Guardian – a left-leaning news site that increasingly resembles an aggregator for the latest Twitter meltdown – reports a new 140-character controversy seemingly every day.

Stephen Fry deletes his account after receiving abuse for calling costume designer Jenny Beavan a “bag lady” at the BAFTAs. JK Rowling is attacked by followers for being “insensitive” to Native Americans in her latest short story. Kanye West starts internet beefs with just about everyone on the social networking site, gaining more column inches than what many would describe as ‘legitimate news’.

To own a social media profile is to swim with sharks and if you’re in business, there are only so many apologies you can make before your social snafus impact your profits.

Let’s look at an example, shall we?


Fast food chain McDonald’s felt the wrath of Twitter when it realised that hashtags won’t always produce positive feedback. Using #McDstories, the initial aim of the campaign was for followers to share their culinary delights and McMemories in 140 characters -but things didn’t quite go to plan.


The marketing campaign had turned sourer than a pickled gherkin, with thousands of tweets recounting poor customer service and poorer foodstuffs. After paying for promoted tweets, the Happy Meal merchants pulled the plug on their marketing campaign within two hours.

Yet tweets have a habit of gaining traction, whether a company wants them to or not. #McDstories had become like Frankenstein’s Monster, rampaging through social media feeds and news sites, slowly destroying its creator.

Whether the tweets were from genuine detractors of the brand or wind-up merchants didn’t matter. They were swirling around the unpredictable ether of the internet, refusing to abate.

McDonald’s were shamed for their past mistakes, haunted by false allegations and made fun of for the quality of their products – and all because of a simple hashtag.

The friendship currency

Let’s get back to So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Here’s a lengthy quote from the book by documentary maker Adam Curtis, who doesn’t have many positive things to say about the world of social media. Discussing Twitter, he said:

It locks people off in the world they started with and prevents them from finding out anything different. They get trapped in the system of feedback reinforcement. Twitter passes lots of information around.

But it tends to be the kind of information that people know that others in their particular network will like. So what you get is a kind of mutual grooming. One person sends on information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways. And then, in return, those others will like the person who gave them that piece of information. So information becomes a currency through which you buy friends and become accepted into the system.

That makes it very difficult for bits of information that challenge the accepted views to get in. They tend to get squeezed out. When someone says something or does something that disturbs the agreed protocols of the system, the other parts react furiously and try to eject that destabilising fragment and regain stability. And so the idea that there is another world of other people who have other ideas is marginalised in our lives.

It’s not the most heart-warming quote you’ll find in the book, but it does paint a picture of the dicey nature of social media.

The earnest beginnings of Facebook and Twitter, when everyone was overawed at this new form of communication, are long gone. Now, users will express their moral outrage at any perceived slight, making the role of marketing online an increasingly specialist field – the kind of field with landmines in it.

Marketing on social media has become savvier since the #McDstories controversy of 2012. Digital copywriters and social media specialists know that they have to be careful to avoid a backlash, but that doesn’t mean they have to become anodyne.

Some companies have found ways to be entertaining, informative and filled with personality, all without dismaying the Twittersphere.

The (Paddy) Power of social media

A cracking example of this is betting site Paddy Power, which has balanced laddish boisterousness with footballing stats and betting advice. What’s more, it’s funny. You don’t feel like there’s a marketer behind the keyboard. This is your mate sharing a joke down the pub – a mate who’ll weirdly recommend Paddy Power to you every once in a while, but a mate nonetheless.

Paddy Power make having an avuncular presence on Twitter look easy, but these marketers are pros at courting their audience. They’ve sent “information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways” and reaped the rewards. Like a master observational comedian, they’ve taken the finer aspects of their audiences’ personal lives and translated them into engaging and humorous content.

So what social media tips can we recommend to keep your business out of hot water?

Start a debate around topical issues, but steer it away from your company’s flaws.
You might love offensive humour, but drop a stinker of a joke and you’ll upset or offend your customers.
At the same time, bland marketing will attract about as much interest as a PowerPoint presentation on bus timetables. Don’t send your audience to sleep.
Followers criticising your brand are inevitable, but they can be controlled with the right personality and quick response times.
Don’t post whatever you fancy. This isn’t your personal account. Every tweet counts – and perfectly pitched content could sway a customer’s brand loyalty.

Creating the perfect social media account takes tact, time and care. You need to know your audience, join social networks they’re interested in and create content that they’ll love engaging with.

Sound like hard work? That’s because it is. But if you want the job done well, leave your web worries with us. We’ll help you out with professionally coordinated social media accounts, well-honed SEO and finely tuned content. For more information, get in touch.