In a total PR nightmare, Coca-Cola is doing some damage control after a social media marketing campaign went terribly wrong. I’m not entirely sure how this happened. I thrive on helping companies use social media to build communities and expand their brand recognition. As such, I do not want someone looking over my shoulder every step of the way during a social media plan. Yet, having said that, I also understand the value of a total partnership between myself and my clients.

I caution any company, organization or individual to not blindly turn over their brand’s name, mission or outreach efforts for someone to manage unsupervised. This is particularly true in the digital space. Not because our rules are different, but because there is a learning curve regarding the ways and means to use social media. Also, always keep in mine that once it’s out there, it’s out there an you’re going to have a heck of a time doing a “retraction”. I know many people don’t understand the space, but you should be aware enough to know how you are being represented online and in the social media efforts on your behalf.

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Coca-Cola became the latest company to completely screw up a social marketing attempt this week, joining the ranks of brands like Molson, Nestle and rival soft drink Pepsi, all of whom have tried in the past to leverage the awesome power of social media and viral marketing, only to see their experiments blow up in their faces. Coca-Cola’s faux pas this week is a particularly embarrassing failure, since it might very well result in legal action being taken against the company, which is accused of exposing minors to pornographic material following a Dr. Pepper marketing campaign which involved Facebook users allowing Dr. Pepper to “hijack” their status updates in return for a chance at a $1,000 weekly prize.

The marketing campaign, likely launched by a third-party social marketing firm, saw Facebook users allowing Dr. Pepper to post “embarrassing” status messages on their walls, effectively hijacking their status updates. What’s more, the hijacked updates were set to “public” visibility, meaning that anyone over the entire internet was given access to the updates. Known as “status takeover,” the marketing campaign blew up in Coca-Cola’s face faster than a Dr. Pepper with a Mentos dropped into it after a fourteen year old girl’s mother discovered a status update on her daughter’s profile which read, “‘I watched 2 girls one cup and felt hungry afterwards.”

Important note: If you don’t know what that status update means, you’re not alone. Coca-Cola readily admits that they didn’t understand what it meant either. Which isn’t surprising, considering that “2 Girls One Cup” is one of the most well-known, disgusting pornographic movies ever shown on the internet – and that’s really saying a lot, considering what’s out there.

The girl’s mother took to Mumsnet, a notorious parenting forum famous for its stirring up “mobs” of parents through knee-jerk reactions to perceived threats. In her post, she wrote: 

“So, how do I proceed? ASA? I am absolutely fizzing with rage and disgust, and want a full apology and explanation. CocaCola are saying they use outside marketing teams for different brands and it’s outside their jurisdiction. Help!?”

Despite the obvious irony in saying she’s “fizzing” with rage and disgust, she’s got a great point. There was a time, back in the day, when Coca-Cola could have gotten away with something like this by saying, “We didn’t write it, a marketing team wrote it, and it’s outside our jurisdiction.” But thanks to the internet, that day is long, long gone. Since Friday, over 1000 responses to her original post have been made, and Coca-Cola has responded by pulling the campaign, saying:

“It has been brought to our attention that the Dr Pepper promotion on Facebook posted an offensive status update. We apologise for any offence caused. As soon as we became aware of this, we took immediate action and removed the status update from the application. We have also taken the decision to end the promotion. We will take all steps necessary to ensure this does not happen again.”

Too little, too late, Coca-Cola. With the Mumsnet forumers baying for blood, it’s likely that a legal body of some sort or another will eventually investigate how Coca-Cola could have allowed anyone working for them to post a reference to a disgusting pornographic movie on a fourteen year-old girl’s wall – a movie that girl later searched for on the internet to find out what the obscure status update meant.

So where did Coca-Cola go wrong, and what can you do to avoid something like this happening to your own brand? The answer is quite simple.

Never, never allow any “social marketing agency”, no matter how edgy they seem and no matter how often they tell you that they’re “experts,” post or publish anything in your company or brand’s name without checking it first.