The five biggest social media fails of 2016 - an enterprise review

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed December 2, 2016
Social media fails are the fried dough of the Internet. Here's your yummy helping, along with a few enterprisey takeways - that would be the Brussels sprouts.

Welcome to my second annual social media fails- with an enterprise twist. Don't want to cancel my own parade, but social media failures are overrated. Companies overstress these blunders.

Social media gurus don't want you to dwell on the truth. You can walk back from almost any social media gaffe - if you handle the apology well, and address the root cause. There are exceptions. If your social media team is so brain-dead that they launch a campaign elevating racial whiteness as a virtue, then yeah, you're gonna get creamed, and your brand will be damaged (that's mistake number five on our countdown - congrats Seoul Secret).

Most of these mistakes are a chance to look in the mirror hard, and improve a process or service. Before we dive in, a few rules. Blatantly obvious mistakes are excluded. These d'ohs! must be corporate in nature, and bring lessons of note. In other words:

The rules are set. Now, for your holiday enjoyment, here's the rest of my top five, why they made the list - and the lessons derived. Cue the countdown, which does contain some NSFW language.

4. ASOS gives a master class in tone deaf or botcrap social service

Why: Ticking off your own customers is a bummer.

How it failed: Facebook blew up. ASOS service reps were openly mocked. Others wondered if those service reps were bots posing as peeps. Good times ensued:


That went well!


  • Social customer service can be done, but it erodes quickly under poor training and management.
  • Coaching reps to act robotically "helpful" - but not useful - runs the risk they will be perceived as bots, inflaming customers.
  • Never deploy social service reps unless they have the power to solve and/or escalate problems.
  • Neutered niceness always gets exposed as the time waster it is.
  • If bots are used, make that clear from the get go.

3. Coca-Cola fans flames of disputed Russian territories

Why: Because ticking off entire countries is a drag. When media outlets go so far as to say you've escalate tensions in Eastern Europe, then your social media campaign didn't work out.

How it failed: Coca-Cola wanted to cozy up to potential Russian customers with a harmless happy new year message. The Guardian put it best: All Coca-Cola wanted to do was to wish consumers a happy new year, but instead it ended up stirring anger in two markets, Russia and Ukraine, over the disputed territory of Crimea. This led to a bizarre blow-by-blow:

  • In a new year’s message on the Russian social media network VK, Coca-Cola published a map of Russia that did not include Crimea.
  • Russian users from the VK took issue.
  • Russia re-published the amp, including Crimea. The new map also included the Kuril Islands, which Moscow from Japan in 1945 (Japan still claims it).
  • By including Crimea, Coca-Cola unleashed a firestorm in Ukraine, where demands for a boycott of the soft drink got under way.
  • On the plus side, no one from Japan got ticked off (as far as I know).




  • Geography and politics are a beast.
  • It pays to have cultural advisors who can hopefully warn of regional nuances.
  • Not all failures are the result of gross mistakes. This was a tricky play from the get-go. Sometimes failures spiral out of proportion to our actions; we still have to own them.
  • No good deed goes unpunished.
  • Generic holiday greetings are boring and useless anyhow.

2. Razer goes off the social media reservation, "tech bros" style

Why: Because alienating influential female gamers due to Apple brand jealousy is a bad look. So is being a "tech bro" brand.

How it failed: Razer didn't seem to like the attention Apple's Macbook Pro announcement was getting. So they went with tech-bro-approved "Suck my D," which they couldn't resist given the double entendre cleverness of shortening S and D for SD reader, which the Pro doesn't have:


Reaction was swift:


(Kelly Ellis is a engineer). It wasn't just women who took umbrage:


Lesson: At the risk of offending readers, this one didn't bother me much personally. I grew up in profane settings (e.g. my high school) where this kind of talk would be considered mild. But Razer is deep into the gaming industry, where the issue of sexism has been front-and-center. Razer's tweet showed a profound insensitivity to their market. Oh, and Razer's subsequent obligatory "to those who were offended" apology smacked of insincerity.

  • Cultural advisors have a role to play on social media teams. This is where liberal arts majors who have experience in the midst of intense cultural/political debates can shine, bringing more context for social issues than marketers often have.
  • It's not about political correctness, it's about knowing and respecting your market.
  • People don't like doing business with companies that prize attention over values.
  • There is a difference between humanizing your brand and idiotizing your brand.
  • Trying to attach yourself to another brand's viral campaign is always fraught with peril.

1. Microsoft's Tay holds up an AI mirror to Twitter, promptly cracks

Why: When your competitors (Amazon, Apple) have thriving AI tools and your AI Twitter chatbot crashes and burns within 24 hours, it's not a good look.

How it failed: Almost immediately after launch, diabolical Twitter users taught/tricked Microsoft Tay to spew profanity and racial ephitets, which the Microsoft team frantically deleted, to no avail as the hits kept coming. The best Tay moment had no profanity whatsoever:


I had a soft spot for Tay. Alas, "she" was abruptly silenced by its corporate creators after 16 hours of delightfully offensive tweets. Much to my disappointment:

Tay wasn’t just gamed into misbehavior by mean hackers. Tay was a perfectly accurate reflection of the social herd, the degraded mob, the blissfully ignorant electorate. As such it was a wonderful corrective to all those “wisdom of crowds” preachers of elevated techno-humanity. This infamous Tay interaction showed us everything we need to know:

Yup, Microsoft F’d up, but they unintentionally hit a cultural bullseye in the process. Microsoft gave us the mirror we deserve. That’s a far more profound AI trick than anything Siri or Echo has ever pulled off. Still, out of respect for the high stakes of the AI game, Tay gets the number spot. Tay will always be number one in my chatbot heart, but she's number one on the fails list also. Sorry girl!


  • Limit "AI" to focused use cases, not expansive interactions where its limitations are exposed - especially if those interactions are public.
  • Test, test, and test again.
  • Test all over gain, this time with the most cruel and dangerous human behavior in mind.

End note: Since the year isn't quite over yet, we may see a holiday gaffe or two. I'll pick those up in hits and misses. If I overlooked a big one from this year, do let me know in the comments.

Update note: my first version of this piece, in the Razer section, included references to Gamergate and issues of sexual harassment in the gaming industry. That proved to be a distraction to some readers of this column, and that has nothing to do with why I selected Razer in these top five whiffs of the year. As of December 3, 1:15pm ET, I have revised that section of the post to limit the reference to the problem of sexism in the gaming industry.

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