Digital Don't Dos: Three of the Biggest Digital Marketing Failures of 2015

Digital Marketing • 31st May, 16


Marketing’s never exactly been a cakewalk; but if there’s any one particular issue that really gets under the skin of the modern online marketer, it’s the simple fact that, nowadays, the internet forgets very quickly.

Sure, trends have always been a thing. We’ve always had a habit of abruptly dropping things we were once crazy about because commitment is boring and new stuff is fun. But with the advent of the internet, the rate of the rise and fall of trends, like so many other things, is just happening so much faster. Global communication, the constant feed of social media, and dear old hashtag trends have helped ensure that we leap from one talking point to another with relentless, far-reaching efficiency.

And needless to say, that can be an issue for advertisers. Getting folks to talk about something, that’s easy enough, just gotta spam it all over the place; getting folks to talk about something in a manner that inclines them to spend money on it – and remember it long enough in order to do so – that’s where it gets trickier.

Of course, there’s always that one way to get folks discussing your brand or business – you know what we mean? Pull it off right, and folks could still be hashtagging your name a fortnight (roughly a lifetime in internet years) after the incident. Of course, how good that’ll be for you in business terms – that’s another matter.

Just in case we’re being too indirect here: we’re talking about PR scandals. You know the sort – the marketer’s nightmare – the sort that gets your brand’s name into all the gossip channels, but none of the shopping lists. Like marketing in general, it’s been around for ever, but the internet’s made it far more efficient.

It’s the dark underside of the hasty, by-the-minute, global nature of digital marketing: one misworded Tweet, one on-camera slip of the tongue by a company exec, one misguided marketing gimmick, and your online mentions soar while your business plummets. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a free celebrity endorsement – the sort where whoever’s running their Twitter account informs their several million followers that your brand might as well have been founded on Nazi gold and that they should boycott you forever if they have any sort of soul.

On the whole, not a fun ride, as far as business experiences go. And yet it still invariably happens at least several times a year. We humans do love a good scandal, and the corporate world, for all their investment in maintaining good PR, seldom fails to deliver.

So here’s a few of last year’s examples of digital marketing that got folks talking about brands and businesses for all the wrong reasons. Remember: when it comes to marketing and PR, knowing what not to do is frequently as important as knowing what not to do.


IHOP Goes Fratty

The International House of Pancakes, America and Canada’s favourite excuse to eat dessert for breakfast, is one of those companies whose popularity is the sort that can cause carelessness. Sure, the IHOP name isn’t quite on the level of, say, McDonalds; but still, in its home country, at least, the IHOP name is synonymous enough with an on-the-go breakfast to feel secure in its position in the market.

And oftentimes, it’s that sort of security that can, occasionally, lead one to let one’s marketing standards slip – after all, there’s tangibly less motivation to keep them up when you’ve already got a secure position as a brand.

Of course, for the most part, this usually just leads to a brand’s marketing being reduced to throwing its logo around – after all, when a logo’s familiar enough, it’s marketing on its own. However, there’s also times when one can really let one’s standards slip a bit too far – times which lead to things like IHOP’s unfortunate little Twitter mishap.

In October, Twitter, with all the grace and formality of a tipsy frat initiate, sent out a Tweet describing their pancakes thusly: “Flat but has a great personality”.

Classy. One can, if one somehow has the time, argue back and forth about the merits of incorporating sexual references into one’s advertising campaigns; but it can probably be pretty much universally agreed that, for a chain of family-friendly pancake houses, throwing around boob jokes is probably questionable form.

Needless to say, barely two hours had passed before the Tweet was deleted, and an appropriately grovelling apology was posted. But as any semi-experienced internet user is aware, deleting a Tweet usually does about as much good as burning one copy of a book that’s already been released in bookstores around the world.

In short: don’t let it come to the point of having to delete a Tweet and make an apology. Everyone’s gonna remember the Tweet, nobody’s gonna remember the apology, and your little slip-up is going to stay online forever.


Disney Japan and the Unfortunate Unbirthday

2015 was a stunningly bad year for Disney in Japan – or at least, for their Twitter account. In a succession of what seemed, at least by most accounts, to be a whole lot of clueless, unmalicious blunders, Disney Japan’s Twitter account churned out a series of Tweets that, from the perspective of the average Japanese citizen, really could have used a bit more forethought.

It began on 11 March, when they Tweeted a cutesy Frozen-themed image, along with the caption “Bring on spring”.

Seems innocent enough, right? Unfortunately, 11 March just so happened to be the anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake, which resulted in over 15,000 deaths and the destruction of millions of homes. Needless to say, it wasn’t the sort of day most folks in Japan were in a sunny, cheery, waiting-keenly-for-spring sort of mood.

And a few months later, the Twitter account’s manager, seemingly blissfully unaware of their bungle, sent out an image from the whimsical old Disney classic Alice in Wonderland, along with the quote “A very merry unbirthday to you!” and the caption “Congrats on a trifling day!”

Said Tweet, as it happened, came out on 9 August – the 70th anniversary of the day that an atomic bomb fell on the city of Nagasaki, killing around 50,000 people. There are many things the average Japanese citizen would probably use to describe such an anniversary; “trifling” is almost certainly none of them.

And, oblivious as ever, the offending Twitter account, only a few days later, Tweeted a Lilo and Stitch-themed image, along with a cheery “Are you enjoying summer vacation?” This Tweet, however, came on 15 August, the anniversary of another moment of the Second World War that Japan remembers less than fondly: their surrender. If there ever was a day that the average, reasonably patriotic Japanese citizen was inclined to be frolicking about in the summer sun, it certainly wasn’t that day.

Whoever was running the Disney Japan Twitter account this year, they seemed, for someone fluent in Japanese, to have a strikingly limited knowledge of…well, Japanese things.

It’s just such a damnably fine line to walk, isn’t it? Forget the date, or the nature of your target audience, for the amount of time that it takes to tap out a Tweet, and you could disrespect the memory of several thousand war victims. Precisely what that’ll do to your self-image is up to you; what it’ll do to your brand’s image is less ambiguous.


Tomato Sauce With Extra Spice

QR codes may have lost the mystic appeal – and frequent overuse – that came with their invention; but they still prove a convenient way to get customers to take part in some of the slightly more elaborate promotional efforts. After all, all the customer needs is a smartphone and sufficient reason to get it out long enough to scan that code. Not too demanding on anyone.

Taking advantage of this, the German branch of Heinz tomato sauce, a few years back, offered its customers the chance to take part in a classic old “design your own logo” competition, letting them submit their entries on the website “”, which could be pulled up on their smartphone by scanning a QR code found on Heinz bottles.

All pretty above board, yes? And for the most part, it went well. The competition came to a close in 2014, and Heinz, getting back to business and occupying itself with the sort of things that an international tomato sauce brand does, allowed the “” to lapse.

Roughly a year later, in June 2015, a German man named Daniel Korell, for reasons that are entirely his own business, used his phone to scan the QR code on an old Heinz bottle he had on hand.

Naturally, he was directed to…well, the thing that had once been “”. Thing is, once the competition ended, Heinz had failed to renew the domain name, which was abruptly snatched up by a company called Fundorado.

Odds are, most of you have guessed that “Fundorado” is most likely one of two things. Sadly, it’s not an amusement park.

Naturally, Mr Korell submitted a disgruntled post to the company’s Facebook page, notifying them that their old QR codes now directed to a hardcore porn site, and that a kid who got his hands on a smartphone and an old Heinz bottle could well have grounds to sue them for therapy costs in a few years. Mr Korell was rewarded with two responses: one was a brief apology from Heinz; the other was the offer of a free year-long subscription from Fundorado.

Of course, in business terms, the whole affair was a blessing from Fundorado’s perspective; their traffic spiked considerably, and for a while, their on-site banner even advertised them as the “original from the ketchup bottle”.

From the perspective of Heinz, though…well, while it’s obviously difficult to do any truly lasting damage to a beloved brand of tomato sauce – after all, it’s tomato sauce – the whole image of “those tomato sauce guys who did that porn site thing” wasn’t exactly a PR dream.

Digital marketing is a multifaceted affair, and oftentimes, your company’s main site won’t be the only domain you book for it. And when that happens, be sure to keep that domain booked a while after its use has ended – not long; just long enough for people to forget about it. It’s not pricey. Certainly not compared to being sued for destroying a kid’s innocence.


Digital marketing is a thing of wonders. It’s efficient, it’s fun, and it stretches across the globe. But more so than any other form of advertising, it has to be done carefully. Done right, it can propel even the humblest of emerging brands and businesses into international renown. Done slightly less than right, it can be a big, ugly, irremovable stain across your brand forever.


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