#fail: Hashtag Revolts Show Marketing Doesn’t Work on Social Media

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I admit that it’s rare for me to say, “You have to feel sorry for McDonald’s” and actually mean it, but after watching the failure of their recent attempt to turn Twitter to their marketing advantage, you actually do have to feel a little bit sorry for the multinational fast food giant. After all, how were they to know that any attempt to artificially create a hashtag meme was doomed to failure? Oh, yeah, that’s right: History.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, last week McDonald’s launched a new marketing initiative on Twitter based around the idea that the company’s official Twitter account and the chain’s customers and fans would tweet positive, Big Mac-friendly messages with the hashtags #McDStories and #MeetTheFarmers.

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It was an attempt to promote the company’s new focus on healthy ingredients. As you might expect, however, things went badly very quickly with messages like the following:

Tweets like those replaced more positive tweets within a matter of hours, and McDonald’s was forced to retire the campaign soon thereafter. Interestingly enough, the #MeetTheFarmers hashtag was left alone, pretty much, which suggests it probably wasn’t easily identified as a McDonald’s tag, but perhaps seen as support for farmers in general.

A similar fate awaited the homophobic @LGBTFacts Twitter account, which claimed it was set up as a means of “spreading the truth about the abhorrent homosexual lifestyle.”

Such hateful “truths” include tweets like, “Pedophile priests in the Church are closet liberal homosexuals acting out fantasy & trying to tarnish Church’s rep” and “Homosexuals cannot have children naturally, they must steal children from other families” – and those are some of the classier tweets, sadly.

After someone noticed that the account was tagging its bile with #LGBTFacts, that hashtag was stolen and used by a number of Twitter users for their own, slightly more comedic, purposes.

Some examples:

This, of course, didn’t sit well with the person behind the original account, who tweeted “Pro-homosexual twitter accounts are attempting to hijack our #LGBTfacts hashtag like they did with #no4m. Fight back!” to much derision from those paying attention.

The lesson to take from both of these cases is summed up, to an extent, by another tweet: “Note to self: If evil, don’t do social media.” Or to be slightly less biased about things, if you’re going to try and co-opt social media for your own ends, be prepared for your success to rely entirely on whether or not your proposal appeals to the collective hive mind of the internet.

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Marketing and advertising still, for the most part, work on an old-fashioned broadcast mindset of authority and audience: We tell you this and you accept it (or, at least, if you refuse it, you do so at such a low volume that we’re still louder). But social media — and especially Twitter, which hasn’t yet worked out how to prioritize some content over other content even to the extent of Facebook’s posts/comments structure — works on an entirely different framework altogether.

The framework is that of You say something and then I respond however I want. That, of course, is a wonderful, wonderful thing for communication in general, but not so much if you’re trying to create something where everyone is agreeing with you – let alone agreeing with you about a controversial topic and your equally controversial stance on said topic.

It’s not about whether you’re evil or not, but more about misunderstanding how social media works. You want to create a hashtag so that people will talk about what you want to talk about? Great. But don’t get upset when people say different things than you’d hoped for, because that’s exactly the point; they’re talking about the same thing that you are.

Instead of getting angry or feeling defeated, use that common ground to talk to those people, find out why they disagree with you, and see if you can change their mind — or maybe even change yours. Hashtags aren’t the latest in-thing for marketers to use to make themselves feel like they’re down with the kids. If you think they are — or if you’re not prepared to engage in a discussion about what you’re trying to sell — then you shouldn’t be on social media. Take some time and learn how to play, as the Byrds once sang, and then come back with an open mind to see how things really work.

MORE: Why Twitter?

Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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