Villing & Company

Not for the Faint of Heart: The impact of social media can spell heartburn for marketers. Just ask Domino's.

In recent years, viral marketing through the Internet and social media has been all the buzz. And for good reason. From the Blair Witch Project and the BMW/Madonna mini movies to Burger King’s Subservient Chicken, the ability of a campaign to become a viral sensation has been the aspiration of marketers everywhere. But if we ever needed a reminder of the dark side of Internet marketing, it became painfully real to Motrin back in November and just this week to Domino’s.

Haven’t heard the story yet? For the weak of stomach, I’ll spare the details in this space. If you have the intestinal fortitude, read the USA Today article. Or, worse yet, go to YouTube and look for recent Domino’s postings. In short, on Monday, April 13, two Domino’s employees posted a video on YouTube in which they did some pretty gross things to a sub sandwich.

By Wednesday, the video had been viewed over a half million times.

To Domino’s credit, the company responded quickly and reasonably well.

To the employees’ discredit, despite trying to pull the video off YouTube, they have been fired and are facing criminal charges for food tampering and lawsuits over their actions.

The problem is that once something like this is released from the magic Internet lantern, it can’t be put back. The employees tried to recall their posting, but by then, other YouTube visitors had copied and reposted it. It is the ultimate cautionary tale about the dangers of the online world. While marketers dream of the Internet genie, the reality is that they have no control once she is released from the lantern. As the spokesperson for Domino’s said, “That’s the challenge of the Web world. Any two idiots with a video camera and a dumb idea can damage the reputation of a 50-year-old brand.”

Of course, Domino’s had no control over this nightmare right from the start. But there are other situations where marketers with good intentions sometimes fall victim to the laws of unintended consequences. The Motrin case study began as an Internet advertising campaign. A Colorado woman with two children took offense at the way the campaign trivialized motherhood. Her subsequent blog postings put mothers everywhere atwitter and within hours, Motrin was feeling the pain. So much so, they pulled the campaign. Dollars out the window. Careers in jeopardy. And another brand reputation badly bruised.

The Internet, Twitter and other emerging social media vehicles have changed public relations and marketing in monumental ways. We are all at the mercy of the instantaneous media and its power for reaping the good, the bad and the ugly. Susan Boyle of “Britain’s Got Talent” has found the good side — that is if the overnight stardom doesn’t do her in. Unfortunately, Domino’s ran into the ugliest. The company’s PR efforts, and its management, will be sorely tested in the days ahead — a wake up call to everyone that social media can change lives — and brands — in ways previously unimaginable. And companies need to be prepared as much as possible to prevent the heartburn, not merely treat it.

Filed Under: public relations

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