7 Hilarious Twitter Brand Hashtag Fails (And What We Can Learn From Them)

Branded hashtags have become a ubiquitous part of the social media landscape. According to a study by Simply Measured, 70% of the world‘s top brands have used branded hashtags. When done right, they can be a powerful tool for driving engagement, brand awareness, and sales.

However, as these 7 spectacular fails demonstrate, branded hashtags are also a double-edged sword. A poorly conceived or executed hashtag can quickly spiral out of control, inviting ridicule, outrage, and lasting damage to a company‘s reputation.

Let‘s dive into each fail to see what went wrong and extract valuable lessons for running effective, disaster-proof hashtag campaigns.

1. McDonalds‘ #McDStories

In January 2012, McDonald‘s launched the #McDStories hashtag, envisioning a stream of happy customer stories about their dining experiences. What they got instead was a nightmare.

The hashtag took a swift and brutal turn as Twitter users began sharing horror stories, from fingernails in burgers to food poisoning. Tweets like these quickly flooded the tag:

  • "Ate a McFish and vomited 1 hour later….The last time I got McDonalds was seriously 18 years ago in college….. #McDstories"
  • "These #McDStories never get old, kinda like a box of McDonald‘s 10 piece Chicken McNuggets left in the sun for a week."

McDonald‘s yanked the campaign within 2 hours, but the damage was done. #McDStories remains a shining example of how vague, open-ended hashtags are an invitation for trouble, especially for brands that are already magnets for criticism.

The lesson: Be specific and strategic with your hashtag. Don‘t leave room for it to be hijacked in a negative direction. And honestly assess your brand perception before inviting unfiltered public commentary.

2. Susan Boyle‘s #Susanalbumparty

When Susan Boyle‘s PR team launched the #Susanalbumparty hashtag in 2012 to promote her new album release party, they clearly didn‘t read it as one word. The tag was meant to be read as "Susan Album Party" but was widely interpreted as "Su‘s Anal Bum Party." Cue the ensuing mockery.

While this fiasco may have gotten Boyle‘s party more attention, it certainly wasn‘t the kind of buzz her team was hoping for.

The lesson: ALWAYS consider alternate readings of your tag, especially when it forms other words mashed together. Use capitalization to separate the words. And for the love of all things holy, never let your hashtag reference an "anal bum party."

3. Entenmann‘s #NotGuilty

In 2011, baked goods brand Entenmann‘s caused a stir when they sent this ill-conceived tweet: "Who‘s #notguilty about eating all the tasty treats they want?!" Seems innocuous enough, except the tweet went out on the same day Casey Anthony was acquitted of murdering her daughter in a hugely publicized trial. #NotGuilty was trending for a decidedly more serious and controversial reason.

Entenmann‘s deleted the tweet and issued an apology, but the gaffe spurred a flood of outraged and mocking responses. Many saw it as a shockingly tone-deaf attempt to capitalize on a grim trending topic.

The lesson: Always check why a hashtag is trending before using it and consider the context. Hopping on irrelevant and especially sensitive news item hashtags is a recipe for backlash.

4. DiGiorno Pizza‘s #WhyIStayed

Here‘s another prime example of why blindly latching onto trending tags can backfire spectacularly. In September 2014, DiGiorno noticed the hashtag #WhyIStayed trending and decided to riff on it with this attempt at humor: "#WhyIStayed You had pizza."

Horrifyingly, #WhyIStayed was being used by survivors to share their heartbreaking stories of why they stayed in abusive relationships. The tweet came across as incredibly insensitive and trivializing of domestic violence. DiGiorno deleted it and spent the next several days profusely apologizing.

The lesson: Not every trending hashtag is fair game for humor or casual appropriation. Take the time to understand the context and meaning behind a tag. When in doubt, sit it out.

5. Bud Light‘s #UpForWhatever

In 2015, Bud Light printed the slogan "The perfect beer for removing ‘no‘ from your vocabulary for the night" on bottles as part of its #UpForWhatever campaign. The phrasing came under fire for having disturbing rape culture overtones by seemingly encouraging reckless, nonconsensual behavior.

After widespread outrage, Bud Light halted production of the bottles and issued an apology, stating the message "missed the mark" and they would "never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior."

The lesson: Carefully vet your copy and messaging from all angles. Consider how it could be interpreted in the worst possible light. Any references to drinking and sex require extra scrutiny and sensitivity.

6. NYPD‘s #myNYPD

Here‘s a prime example of how crowdsourced hashtags can veer wildly off course, especially for organizations that are already controversial. In April 2014, the New York Police Department called on followers to share friendly photos posing with police officers using the tag #myNYPD.

Instead, they got thousands of photos depicting police brutality, misconduct, and general unflattering portrayals of the NYPD. Critics took control of the narrative, sinking the original feel-good intent.

The lesson: Tread very carefully with campaigns inviting public contributions if your brand or organization is polarizing or embroiled in any kind of scandal or struggle. You‘re giving detractors a big microphone.

7. SeaWorld‘s #AskSeaWorld

In 2015, beleaguered marine park SeaWorld attempted to rehabilitate its image with a Twitter Q&A hashtag #AskSeaWorld. Given the immense backlash and outcry over the documentary "Blackfish," which painted a disturbing picture of SeaWorld‘s treatment of its captive whales, you can guess how this went.

Animal rights advocates and critics mercilessly bombarded the Q&A, lambasting SeaWorld for perceived animal cruelty and deception. Sample tweet: "#AskSeaWorld why do you LIE & tell guests collapsed dorsal fins are normal when only 1-5% of wild orcas have them?"

SeaWorld diligently responded to the outraged questions, but the Q&A only amplified their PR woes. It cast a national spotlight on the backlash and provided critics a huge platform to air grievances.

The lesson: Q&A hashtags are very high-risk for controversial brands. It‘s essentially like setting up a digital dunk tank. Unless you have unassailable public favor, it‘s best to pursue other avenues. Focus on concrete positive actions first.

Key Takeaways For Hashtag Success

Now that we‘ve cringed through some of the most memorably mortifying hashtag fails, let‘s recap the key lessons. Here‘s how to avoid becoming the next laughingstock of the Twitterverse:

  1. Be specific and purposeful. Vague, generic hashtags are ripe for misinterpretation and ridicule. Have a clear goal in mind.
  2. Carefully consider all alternate readings and interpretations. Get feedback from a diverse audience to uncover any potentially problematic double meanings or crude words formed by smushing the tag together.
  3. Read the room. Be aware of the context surrounding your tag and any news stories or controversies that could cast it in a negative light. Make sure it‘s relevant and appropriate.
  4. Check if it‘s already in use. Do a quick Twitter search to see if your tag is already being used for unrelated or NSFW discussions.
  5. Tread carefully with inviting public participation. Crowdsourced campaigns are very risky for brands that already have public perception challenges. It invites an avalanche of snark.
  6. Don‘t force irrelevant tie-ins. Using random trending tags, especially those about sensitive issues, to promote your brand is a big no-no. Stay in your lane.
  7. Have a crisis management plan. If you run a tag that starts veering off the rails, be ready to respond swiftly and appropriately. Ignoring it only makes it worse.

When used wisely, branded hashtags can be incredibly powerful for building buzz, community, and brand loyalty. But as these cringe-inducing calamities show, they must be handled with care and forethought.

By learning from these epic face-palms, you can craft hashtags that spark the right kind of viral sensation. Just remember the cardinal rule: think before you tag!