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When Promoted Hashtags are Campaign Killers

No matter how lofty a brand’s goals are when it uses hashtags, there are always individuals ready to use them to drag it into the gutter.

McDonald’s is on its second go-round with promoted hashtags gone awry, this time with #UnwrapWhatsFresh. The hashtag was created to support McDonald’s new Premium McWrap, which features chicken (grilled or crispy) and fresh vegetables served in a warm tortilla. 

The hashtag was promoted on Twitter, but instead of talking about healthy eating, a number of people were tweeting these sweet nothings:


Luckily for McDonald’s, the hashtag wasn’t completely hijacked by authors tweeting unsavory thoughts, but it did remind us of #McDStories—a disastrous campaign that inspired countless tweets from former employees and customers alike revealing horrific details about the company that would instantly spoil your lunch.

Tweets courtesy of Huffington Post 

I’m not here just to pick on McDonald’s. It isn’t the first brand to have its hashtag hijacked, and it certainly won’t be the last. But do these media “disasters” make promoted trends and hashtags unwise or risky investments? Or could all engagement be good engagement? Should the blame fall on hijackers for voicing their opinions, or is the onus on the brand to ensure that the promoted content is authentic enough to generate largely positive discussion? 

The Success of Failure

Just a cursory search of the #McDStories hashtag will produce dozens of articles about how this campaign blew up in McDonald’s’ face, and at first glance that’s pretty accurate. But what is success when it comes to promoted hashtags? If it’s awareness, how much negative effect on a brand does it have if the virality is fueled by negative tweets?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m thankful I wasn’t in the shoes of anyone working in the company’s PR agency during that time. I don’t believe that McDonald’s wanted the campaign to garner such a negative reaction, but I also don’t think it came as a surprise to the brand. In the end, engagement, positive or negative, will increase the reach of a hashtag, pushing it closer to the tipping point of going viral. It’s up to the brand to manage the conversation as best it can.


The larger issue here, and one McDonald’s may have skirted with its #UnwrapWhatsFresh campaign, is the necessity for a brand to remain true to its story. If we’ve learned anything about social media, it’s that you can’t bullshit your audience (pardon my French). McDonald’s has faced harsh criticism for much of its existence but more recently in the past few decades, as the health craze has gained momentum (seemingly in parallel with our nation’s growing obesity problem; go figure). If an audience feels it’s being misled or flat-out lied to, it will react, and now it has its own online audiences to preach to.

The #McDStories hashtag, also known as #McDHorrorStories, is easy to pick on; if you take into account the indigestion and overall malaise that is felt shortly after having consumed McDonald’s (at least for me—your experiences may differ), most people don’t have positive stories about their experiences there. #UnwrapWhatsFresh is less obvious but still smells inauthentic. When the average person thinks of McDonald’s, they don’t think of fresh. I realize that McDonald’s is trying to promote a lighter side of its menu (and I applaud the effort to provide healthier options), but the brand’s effort to straddle the health divide is opening up too many opportunities for ridicule and negative sentiment.

Getting Honest

McDonald’s, as well as a number of other half-health-conscious restaurants, has to get honest about its business. Domino’s is the poster child for owning up to a negative brand story and using that negativity to craft a new brand story. Domino’s used to be like most fast-food restaurants—making the food as quickly and at the lowest cost as possible in pursuit of high volume and profit margin. Unfortunately, the lack of pride in the product resulted in feedback claiming it was “mass-produced, boring, bland pizza.” 

Instead of deflecting or ignoring the negativity, Domino’s embraced it, publicly admitting its faults and using them to fuel a marketing campaign called The Pizza Turnaround. It documented its reinvention, changing its recipe and tracking down the detractors in hopes that they’d try its #newpizza and reconsider.

“You can either use negative comments to get you down or use them to excite you and energize your process of making a better pizza,” said Patrick Doyle, president of Domino’s. “We did the latter.”

Back to the #Hashtag

There’s definitely an argument to be had about whether all virality is good virality (feel free to substitute awareness for virality). I bet United Airlines would argue that it’s not. But the reasons that hashtags like #McDStories and, to a lesser extent, #UnwrapWhatsFresh can backfire is that they cause a disconnect between the brand and its story. Is McDonald’s now a place where we go as a family to share (#MdD)stories? Can I start regularly eating a healthy lunch there? What is it, exactly?

Creating hashtags is no easy feat and not something left to an intern to brainstorm for 30 minutes. They embody a part of your brand in as few characters as possible, but they still tell a story. Make sure it’s the right one.


Join The Conversation

  • JonThomas's picture
    Apr 29 Posted 4 years ago JonThomas

    Thanks Loretta. It's hard to say that it's bound to go wrong, because in this case there weren't as many negative tweets as I expected (or tweets joking about the double entendre). But the brand's choices of promoted hashtags have seemed to be insincere to its own brand story, and that's something that needs to be evaluated.  

  • JonThomas's picture
    Apr 29 Posted 4 years ago JonThomas

    Thanks for the comment Rick.

    I was hoping to foster a conversation around what defines success for a promoted tweet/trend/hashtag (and thank you for hopping into the conversation). A very real discussion we had at our offices was whether a Twitter campaign is necessarily unsuccessful if it gets hijacked with negative responses. While we all agreed that no brand would hope for negative responses, we were divided on whether or not a viral spread fueled by negative reactions is all-in-all a bad thing. Rebecca Black's video went viral because it the song was mind-numbingly bad, but she turned that into a sort-of-career and makes paid appearances. 

    I, personally, agree that a campaign is not necessarily a failure if "a number of people" tweet negative things. Though if it were my campaign, I would prefer that the campaign flop in terms of exposure/interaction rather than have it go viral for the wrong reasons, but that's because I put a lot of value in brand storytelling and the stories audiences tell play a big role in that. Depending on what the brand's goals are, definitions of "success" will vary.

    I'm not sure what to make of the #McDStories numbers you gave. First, I was just looking at the campaign specifically, so the tweets about McDonald's in general wouldn't be relevant to the discussion about successful promoted campaigns. McDonald's is such a huge brand that there are tens of thousands of tweets across the spectrum of sentiment every day. If your argument is that #McDStories made up a relatively small percentage of the tweets about the brand that day, then I'm sure that's true (presuming your numbers are correct). But how do you know that the 68,000 tweets about McDonald's (the ones without the #McDStories hashtag) were positive? Did you run sentiment analysis? Or have you done so in the past to know that, on average, McDonald's receives more positive sentiment than negative sentiment? I don't think a claim can be made that "the voices of our fans tweeting positive things far outweighed the impact of a few critics" unless there's proof about the sentiment of those tweets. If you have more insight on that, please share.  

    I would never claim that any hashtag is "unhijackable" and I hope that's not what came across in my article. That's impossible, and we even have a category on our blog called "Consumers Control Brands" which could easily be swapped with "Consumers Control Conversations." It's never the brand. My point was that brands need to be honest and aware of its brand story and make sure that the hashtags they use reflect that, especially promoted ones.

    Thanks again for your comment. I appreciate the discussion!

  • Apr 27 Posted 4 years ago Rick Wion

    Interesting points, but this article is lacking in some much needed context. Twitter, as with all social media, is a place of wonderful and free-flowing conversation. Any brand that enters the space needs to do so with a attitude of wanting to be a part of the conversation...not controlling it. That includes  accepting some potshots and negative tweets from critics and comedians. Does that mean that a campaign is a failure if as the author puts it "a number of people" tweet negative things?

    Doubtful...especially when the evidence is not real numbers but screenshots of four tweets. 

    Even looking back at #McDStories the numbers tell a different story than most of the "experts" wanted to hear. On the day of that story, there were more than 70,000 tweets about McDonald's. Only 2,000 mentioned #McDStories. During that month, there were nearly 3 million tweets about McDonald's and barely 3,000 mentioned #McDStories. In the case of both hashtags, the voices of our fans tweeting positive things far outweighed the impact of a few critics. 

    I totally agree with the point that much thought and care needs to go into hashtags, but the notion that any hashtag is unhijackable is simply incorrect. 

  • Apr 25 Posted 4 years ago LiKing Marketing

    When you are creating a Hashtag, you have to really evaluate it for a double meaning.  That was McDonald's mistake....#unwrapwhatsfresh  was bound to go wrong....

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