The worst social media fails of 2017

Some say that experience is simply the name we give our mistakes. On that basis, these brands all became more experienced in 2017...

social media fails

Given that social media has been around for a fair while now, you’d think that most big brands would have worked out how to avoid falling into PR pitfalls.

But not so.

It seems 2017 has offered rich pickings for fans of social media fails (and let’s be honest, that’s all of us).

We’ve put together a collection of some of the best (or should that be worst?) social blunders of the year – some of them from brands who really should know better…

Sunny Co.

On the face of it, Sunny Co’s swimsuit giveaway was a standard marketing promo that should have earned them some new followers and plenty of healthy engagement.

Users were asked to repost an image of a woman in a red bathing suit to receive said suit for free. However, more than 3,000 people wanted in – leading to an inevitable backtrack once Sunny realised a) they didn’t have sufficient stock, and/or b) how much it was going to cost them.

“Due to the viral volume of participants, we reserve the right to cap the promotion if deemed necessary,” they wrote in a follow-up Instagram post. They also said there could be delays because of the “overwhelming volume of orders”. As it watched its campaign backfire, Sunny Co. turned off the comments on its post – basically the social media equivalent of pulling up the drawbridge.

Takeaway: Do we even need to say it? Any competition, however routine it sounds, needs to have a set of terms and conditions that covers you for every possible eventuality. And don’t ever offer to give away a product unless you’re sure you’ll be able to fulfil demand!

Social media fails - Sunny Co

READ MORE: 8 ways to respond to a social media crisis

United Airlines

Perhaps the social media fail of 2017. United Airlines overbooked a plane and, when a randomly selected passenger refused to leave to make space, staff called security to forcibly remove the 69-year-old from the flight. The ugly incident was inevitably filmed by several passengers and shared widely across social media.

Once the cat was out of the bag there was no coming back from it. No apology, however heart-felt, will save your brand from the PR stink once a video showing a customer being physically man-handled makes it into the public domain. But you can make the situation worse. United Airlines did anyway.

CEO Oscar Munoz wrote a letter to staff in which he blamed the passenger for the incident, and praised staff for following proper procedures. How do you think that one went down on social?

Takeaway: Don’t commit violence against your customers. If the worst happens, then accept 100 per cent of the blame, take your medicine and move on. Blaming anyone but yourself will simply prolong the PR fall-out.

Social media fails - United Airlines


What should have been a routine shopping trip for some yoghurt turned into a PR blunder for UK supermarket chain Morrisons.

A shopper did something we’ve probably all done in this digital era: she took a photo of a range of products and sent it to a friend to ask which one they wanted. So far, so routine. Until, that is, an over-zealous member of staff decided to intervene, telling the customer that taking photographs of products was against store policy.

The customer’s photo inevitably ended up on Twitter, which is where Morrison’s social media team proceeded to make a complete mess of the fall-out. Three separate members of the team replied to the tweet, a bizarrely over-the-top way to deal with such a minor complaint.

Not only did all three responses deliver pretty much the same contrite message, but one committed the cardinal sin of featuring poor grammar – which was inevitably pounced upon by the Twittersphere, making an already unsavoury situation even worse.

Takeaway: If you’ve got multiple staff in your social customer service team, make sure there’s a robust workflow process in place to ensure staff members don’t all pounce on a complaint at once. And for heaven’s sake don’t let anyone post messages unless their spelling and grammar is of a high standard.

READ MORE: Donald Trump Twitter fails: 6 lessons for marketers


It obviously seemed like a good idea when it was dreamed up in the meeting room. Personal care brand Dove launched a range of body wash products in bottles designed to reflect the “one of a kind” body shapes of women. “Each bottle evokes the shapes, sizes, curves and edges that combine to make every woman their very own limited edition,” Dove said in a statement.

But the campaign fell flat, generating an almost universally negative response online. Users had multiple concerns, ranging from what a customer should do if their body shape was out of stock, to claims of sexism (no body-shaped bottles for men?) and racism (Dove bottles are white).

Luckily for Dove, the range was only limited edition so could be quietly and swiftly withdrawn – never to be spoken of again at Dove HQ.

Takeaway: It’s always advisable to steer well clear of any campaign that utilises sensitive social issues such as body shape. But if you must go down that road, make sure you extensively test your campaign first.

READ MORE: 6 examples of social media crises: What can we learn?


While Dove’s body shape campaign was well intended, some fails are enough to make you shake your head in disdain. There are some brands you expect better from, and one of those is Adidas. The sportswear company’s faux pas didn’t originate on social media, but that’s where it ended up.

Adidas sent out an email following the Boston Marathon congratulating customers who completed the race. So far, so good. But set against the context of the awful bombing at the 2013 race in which three people were killed, the choice of subject line – ‘Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!’ – was insensitive in the extreme.

In a statement, Adidas said they were “incredibly sorry” for the “insensitive email subject line” and “deeply apologise for our mistake”.

Must try harder.

Takeaway: Ensure all digital marketing copy passes as many pairs of eyes as possible. Somebody in the internal or external marketing teams at Adidas HQ would have spotted the insensitivity of the subject line, so was this a case of a lone wolf?

Social media fails - Adidas

Great British Bake Off

The Great British Bake Off is a television sensation in the UK. Watched by millions, the show features a fresh batch of amateur bakers each year who compete for the coveted title. It’s fair to say the final is a bit of an event.

So when judge Prue Leith revealed the winner’s identity on Twitter several hours before the final went to air, it’s fair to say there was a bit of a meltdown from fans of the show. The tweet was only up for 89 seconds before it was deleted, but that was long enough for the inadvertent spoiler to spread far and wide.

Leith bizarrely blamed time-zone confusion for the mistake – she was in Bhutan at the time – but the damage had been done. One fan of the show fumed on Twitter: “Prue Leith man what a joke thought I was safe on Twitter until later”. Some said they were not even going to watch the final after it was “spoiled”.

Takeaway: There isn’t much you can do if a high-ranking individual decides to go off piste with a post that damages your brand. But you can implement a set of guidelines that anticipate blunders such as this one, and perhaps a blanket ban on posting social media messages on the day of the final would have been appropriate in this instance.

READ MORE: 11 ways to avoid a social media crisis


This one made us laugh, though we doubt anyone at McDonald’s HQ saw the funny side. Unless it’s an intern on their first day in the office, there’s no excuse for publishing placeholder posts on social media. But that’s exactly what the official account of one of the world’s biggest brands did in the run-up to Black Friday – tweeting ‘**** Need copy and link****’.

In this era of social media calendars, planning tools and workflows, it takes a special effort for a placeholder post to go into the publishing queue without being spotted.

Luckily for McDonald’s, the vast majority of responses were of a light-hearted nature. And it certainly helped that McDonald’s didn’t delete the offending message, instead swiftly following it up with a self-mocking tweet that even managed to inject some product placement.

Takeaway: If you don’t have a workflow in place for your social output, then get one asap. But if a rogue post does somehow make it out into the open, don’t delete it (unless it’s offensive or libellous). Make fun of yourself, something that is guaranteed to play well on social.

Don’t forget: sharing is caring…

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1 comment

  1. Divine Claw Reply

    Thank you for this article. It’s great! hoping for more article like about youtube 🙂

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