Jon Thomas
Jon Thomas
Communications Director

When Promoted Hashtags Are Campaign Killers

This post originally appeared in our April ’13 issue of “Live Report from the Future of Marketing,” our monthly Post-Advertising newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

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.”

McDonald’s isn’t a stranger to this tactic. They recently won an Ad Age Viral Video Award for “Best Brand Transparency” for their work on “Our Food. Your Questions” where they show you step by step how a real McDonald’s hamburger goes through a transformation to become “commercial-ready” (since they never look like the commercial when you get them in real life). It’s informative, transparent (hence the award) and showed that McDonald’s doesn’t always shy away from the truth behind their product. 

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.

  • Alex Brown

    All virality is not good virality because it takes away from your goals and intentions. I’m scraping my finger and saying tsk, tsk to the marketers who try to force virality. As much as brands would like to think twitter is such a great place full of opportunity, one shouldn’t be so quick to jump. Twitter is like high school. If you came to school with the wrong shoes or let something completely mortifying happen to you, it stuck and there was nothing you could do about it. You’re known for said thing for the next four years. That’s how it is on Twitter, plus you have merciless and wildly clever tweeters with no filter. One tweet, one photo, one hashtag can spawn hundreds of parodies, memes, and at worst attacks. The Pacquiao KO memes are one example and that was not planned. McDonalds forgot to heed the basics, you can’t force viral, and I don’t think they fully know Twitter’s ecosystem. Their awareness for virality was slack. Just as marketers should know the golden side of social media, they should know the dark side too.

    In the words of my peers, “McDonalds left themselves wide open with those hashtags.” Just like with your friends you never want to make yourself wide open to be the joke. Never.

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