Has Coca-Cola lost control of its digital fires?

It’s been a bad week for the Coca-Cola Company digitally with offensive Facebook statuses leaving the brand red-faced and its digital agency in peril.

Over the weekend, the company was forced to pull an internet promotion for Dr Pepper, after parents accused it of targeting children by using references to a notorious pornographic movie.

What’s particularly concerning about this case is that Coca-Cola has admitted that it signed off the campaign without knowing what the status update meant.

A spokesperson for the brand admitted “We were unaware of the meaning of this line when the promotion was approved and have launched an investigation into why it was included. We take full responsibility and will be reviewing our promotional procedures.”

It’s perhaps a lesson to all marketers that you can’t experiment with social media without knowing what the impact of your work could be. Senior executives from digital agencies tell me this problem is all too common amongst brands.

As one put it to me: “It’s yet another example of a brand simply saying Yes without considering just how bad the impact could be. In this case the worst that can happen has happened – just consider the offending status “I watched 2 girls one cup and felt hungry afterwards”, how did they not envisage the possibly of kids exploiting such an obvious opportunity?”

Unfortunately, he is right. Brands and agencies have to work closer together to ensure that the openness and freedom online offers is not open to exploitation. In Coke’s case, the agency responsible is feeling the heat, only days after it won the Coke Zero account.

The Coca-Cola spokesperson says: “We have stopped all our ongoing work with Lean Mean Fighting Machine and are reviewing our relationship with the agency. We will take all steps necessary to ensure this does not happen again.”

Ironically, this all happened just weeks after the brand’s former UK marketing director Cathryn Sleight told Marketing Week Live! that marketers must embrace the opportunities available to them through the digital revolution, in order to ensure their brands sparkle by lighting fires and taking risks.

But the soft drink giant isn’t the only brand to have had difficulties online. The Treasury also had to pull its interactive spending challenge website that asked the public to suggest ways of cutting government spending citing “attacks” after it attracted a range of bizarre proposals and rants against minorities.

According to bloggers and newspaper articles, some of the wilder suggestions included a windfall tax on people called Steve, the sterilisation of welfare claimants and the use of domestic cats on treadmills to generate electricity. The site had to be modified overnight to ensure that comments were now moderated before publishing.

It seems that there is still an immaturity surrounding digital where the approach is act first, think later. This needs to change if the digital marketing industry wants to mature at rapid pace – a point not lost in the TouchPoints survey (see news stories below).

And finally, this is my last digital marketing focus leader. Guest columnists will now take over this newsletter before a permanent replacement joins the Marketing Week team. Thank you to all my contributors and sources of wisdom over the last nine months, it’s been a pleasure and I look forward to working with you again soon. Marketing Week subscribers can find me on Pitch and you can follow me on Twitter @PitchDigital_DM.

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