As Mike Schlossberg, a state representative in Pennsylvania and the author of the blog Political Fails and the book Tweets and Consequences, explains, “Social media and the internet don’t make people stupid, they just give people another platform on which they can [expose their stupidity].”
Because there are so many of gaffes to choose from, we asked three experts -- Schlossberg, strategist and author Peg Fitzpatrick and Eric Samson, founder and managing director of the digital marketing firm Group 8A -- to pick their top three social media fails.
Learn from these examples to avoid embarrassment and other, more serious consequences.
1. A state’s inappropriate hashtag goes south.
In 2014, the state of South Dakota launched a campaign to warn people against jerking the steering wheel when swerving on black ice. The hashtag selected by the state’s Department of Public Safety? The sexually suggestive double entendre “Don’t Jerk and Drive.”
“They were trying to break through from the standard, boring, government PSA, but there are certain lines of propriety and decency that the government can’t cross [if it hopes] to maintain credibility,” Schlossberg says. “The government can’t be making masturbation jokes and innuendo.”
2. A councilman’s tasteless Facebook post gets him in hot water.
Henry Davis Jr., a councilman in South Bend, Ind., is against allowing LGBT military members to openly serve in the military. In a misguided attempt to explain his position, he posted a comic on Facebook of a man having sex with a dog, thereby drawing a comparison between homosexuality and beastiality. “He had to apologize multiple times,” Schlossberg explains. “He said he wasn’t endorsing it, just putting it out there.” While he kept his job as councilman after the debacle, he lost his campaign for mayor.
When asked what the politician was thinking, Schlossberg took a guess. “When you’re operating behind a screen, there’s a lack of empathy and [people] don’t think through the consequences of their actions,” he says.
3. A retailer’s explosive photo implodes on Twitter.
On July 4th, American Apparel posted a picture of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, mistaking it for a picture of fireworks. Rather than commemorating patriotism, the picture encapsulated a national tragedy. People were not amused. “It’s bad because it’s not related to the day or event, and it’s related to sadness -- not celebrating,” Samson says. He adds, however, that there is an important distinction between ignorance and intentional bad taste. “Stupidity and/or ignorance is forgivable,” he says. “Evil is not forgivable. There’s a competency issue there, but not evil wrongdoing intentionally.”
Related: The 5 Worst Marketing Fails of 2015
4. A dentist’s Facebook post causes an uproar.
One of Samson’s picks was the dentist who publicized that he’d hunted and killed a beloved lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe by posting an image of the dead animal on Facebook. The photo sparked an international backlash. What’s more, “It completely crushed his business,” Samson says. “He created content that was bad for business because it can’t be spun positively.”
5. A comedian’s jokes on Twitter are no laughing matter.
Comedians are often given leeway on social media. They post edgy or controversial comments that, while funny, would be unacceptable from the average platform user. Still, even comedians can overstep. Fitzpatrick remembers how, shortly after a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, comedian Gilbert Godfrey’s jokes about the disaster -- either edgy or insensitive, depending on whom you ask -- lost him his role as the voice of the Aflac duck. With tweets like, “Japan is really advanced. They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them,” and “What do the Japanese have in common with @howardstern? They're both radioactive,” the insurance company chose to distance itself from Godfrey. “Gilbert's … comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor and certainly do not represent the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac,” the company said. “There is no place for anything but compassion and concern during these difficult times.” Fellow comedian Joan Rivers came to Godfrey’s defense, calling his dismissal “outrageous,” but the damage was done.
6. A restaurant’s social media strategy serves up some serious outrage
Fitzpatrick’s next pick is Amy’s Baking Company in Scottsdale, Ariz. After the restaurant was featured in a particularly brutal episode of Kitchen Nightmares on Fox (Gordon Ramsay left mid-episode for the first time ever), the owners took to Facebook to defend themselves. Using the mantra “The best defense is a good offense,” they went on the attack against customers in the comments section with curses and threats of legal action. Unsurprisingly, the move failed to generate good will. The bistro’s owners, Amy and Samy Bouzaglo, later claimed that their Facebook page was hacked.
7. An airline’s tweet is a little too friendly for the skies.
All three experts include this social media fail on their lists. Here’s a recap for those who don’t remember: U.S. Airlines tweeted out a link to a pornographic picture of a woman with a toy airplane. The mistweet occurred when an employee copied the link to try to report the image to the authorities, but instead accidentally pasted it into a tweet responding to a customer complaint. The company didn’t notice the error for a full 45 minutes. Schlossberg said the reaction of the Twitterverse was “hilarious,” as many took full advantage of the opportunity to post tweets making fun of the company’s blunder. According to Schlossberg, it also serves as a useful reminder to “Double check everything before you send it.” Even jokes can be damaging to a brand. “One knock against your image could last for months or years,” Samson says. The company rebounded, however, by deleting the tweet, acknowledging the error and apologizing. In reflecting on the incident Fitzpatrick praised the company’s response. “I think they handled it well,” she says.