2012's worst online marketing blunders

You’d think that marketers would learn from last year’s online blunders, because through the magic of the Internet, they get punished so instantly and massively.

But no.

2012 had more than its share of egregious online marketing blunders, too. While some resulted from unintended consequences, others provoked consequences that were all too predictable, had anyone used a few human brains to think about them. Or if they’d simply tried common sense instead of blind greed.

January: Using a web tool he’d created, Lewis Peckover catches O2, the UK’s largest mobile phone network, leaking customers’ mobile smartphone numbers, browsing information and operating system versions to other websites. “O2 seems to be transparently proxying HTTP traffic and inserting this header,” he says. “If you’re on O2’s UK mobile network, you’ll see a line beginning with x-up-calling-line-id – followed by your mobile phone number in plain text. It is logical to conclude that this same information is sent to all other websites too.”

February: Apple’s iAd mobile advertising platform cuts its minimum annual advertising requirement by 90 percent – to a mere $100,000 – and starts breaking in its third top executive in two years.

March: Microsoft launches a “Smoked by a Windows Phone” retail challenge, offering a free laptop to the first person to perform basic tasks faster with their existing smartphone than a Microsoft employee with a Windows Phone. When tech CEO Sahas Katter smokes the Windows phone, Microsoft reneges on his prize, then relents after a flood of consumer criticism. Also that month, Facebook reveals that some 83 million of its user accounts – 9 percent of the total – could be fake. This is important because advertising rates vary with audience size and because Facebook has an IPO coming up.

April: Online advertising network Undertone (You’ve probably seen, or tried to ignore, ads they’ve placed on Examiner.com.) buys television time on AMC cable’s premiere of “The Pitch” to tell viewers that online advertising doesn’t work because it gets lost in the clutter and is easily forgotten.

May: Three days before Facebook’s IPO, global CMO Joel Ewanick announces that GM is cancelling $10 million worth of paid Facebook advertising because “their paid ads had little impact on consumers.” Which is funny when you consider that when Ford switched from Super Bowl commercials to paid advertising on Facebook, they saw a 104% increase in shopping activity. (Anybody at GM ever think the problem might be not the medium, but the message?) Whether it was because of Ewanick or not, Facebook’s stock prices fall 13 percent in its first three days as a publicly traded company. Ewanick gets fired months later. Speaking of losing jobs, Scott Thompson, Yahoo’s fourth CEO in five years, is forced to resign after four months, when a hedge fund discovers that he never earned the computer science degree he’d claimed on his resume.

June: Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority bans a Nike Twitter campaign for not making paid tweets from athletes “identifiable as marketing communications.”

July: Microsoft posts its first quarterly loss ever – $492 million – in its 26-year history. A big write-down of aQuantitive, an online ad service they’d bought in 2007 that failed to compete with Google and consistently hemorrhaged money, is the main factor.

August: BiC for Her pens go on sale at Amazon and become the target of instant mockery.

September: Apple’s new iOS upgrade strips out Google Maps and replaces it with a proprietary application – which omits town names from maps, fails to show road names and route numbers, displays blurry or cloudy satellite photos, and generally misdirects drivers. When the app misdirects Australian drivers to the middle of a broiling, waterless outback, police call it “potentially life threatening.” Facebook, on a roll this year, gets sued in federal court for posting photos of users on paid advertising without their consent (or knowledge until after the fact). Judge Richard Seeborg rejects Facebook’s $20 million settlement offer as “plucked from thin air.” And Samsung gets nailed for bribing European smartphone bloggers with free travel in exchange for favorable reviews.

October: European Union regulators force Google to change its privacy policy, which they say “empowers [Google] to collect vast amounts of personal data about Internet users” without demonstrating that this “collection was proportionate.” If that weren’t enough, Google loses nearly $20 billion of its stock value in mere minutes when mistakenly released third-quarter financials disclose a 20 percent net income drop. Over on the East Coast, clothing retailers send out crass, tasteless e-mail blasts tying in to Hurricane Sandy. Jonathan Adler invites consumers to “storm our site” and enter “code Sandy at checkout,” American Apparel offers a “Hurricane Sandy sale” for consumers “bored at home,” Urban Outfitters sends out a bad fart pun and offers free shipping with the code “Allsoggy,” and the Gap asks, “We’ll be doing lots of Gap.com shopping today. How about you?”

November: After Consumer Reports loudly warns against online tracking, Advertising Age catches them doing it themselves. By neglecting to block paid Google advertising from competitors, Best Buy opens up its website pages to direct price competition. And Papa John becomes the target of a $250 million class action suit for using unwilling customers’ phone numbers to send them repeated, unwanted texts in the middle of the night.

December: Starbucks’ #spreadthecheer Twitter promotion backfires when protesters, outraged over Starbucks legally saving on taxes by buying coffee through its Swiss division, fill the National History Museum’s giant screen with angry tweets.

Maybe next year will be better. But don’t count on it. As Einstein said,”Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”

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