The advent of digital marketing has changed the perception of brands in the marketplace. Thanks in a part to the conversational and emotional nature of social media, the near-human persona of brands has sparked quite the debate in recent weeks.

Company social media profiles help to create a “pseudo” person in the eyes of many. As users, we chat with faceless companies, like their posts, and share what they have to say in the same way we share family photos from the wedding last weekend and Timmy’s first rugby match. Businesses realise that their presence on social media is necessary to cultivate brand recognition, sentiment and loyalty. Content marketing and brand storytelling thorough social media have grown as effective techniques in reaching new audiences and potential customers. Companies have slowly made their way into our Facebook and Twitter feeds. They adopt puppies, complete crazy stunts to get our attention, and send us messages when we are watching the telly. They are just like all of us in a lot of ways.

Except they aren’t people, are they?

sure, there is often just an unnamed digital marketing executive sitting in the dark, surrounded by screens and computers, “listening” and monitoring everything. They respond to people looking for a response, retweet, or mention. But for the most part, brands aren’t real people. Although we can like them, follow them, and favourite them, they aren’t real.
But does that mean we should change the practice of interactive digital marketing? Should there be blame for their reception as being more than just companies simply trying to lure money from their audience’s pockets? Should we hate brands for “fooling” us into thinking they are real beings ?

The Coca-Cola company was the recent target of what some saw as a well-proven point about brands on social media; others called it an unnecessary attack. The company was forced to shut down a multi-million pound social media campaign because it was manipulated by a news site to automatically share passages of Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ on Twitter. The passages of Hitler’s writings were sent to Coca-Cola by the popular blog site Gawker.

In their digital campaign, the soft drinks company wanted social media users to tag ‘negative’ tweets with a #MakeItHappy. The company would then automatically edit those words into cute pictures made of ASCII code, and send them back to Twitter world. The “intention” of the drinks company was to make the Internet a better, more positive place, but it was not meant to be. Because the obvious intention of Coke was to create a buzz-worthy moment and sell more products with the digital campaign, it was an easy target for Gawker. They manipulated Coke’s happiness machine to interpreting a white supremacy slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children”. The machine turned that statement into a cartoon dog.

In a statement to Adweek, the company released the following:
“The #MakeItHappy message is simple: The Internet is what we make it, and we hoped to inspire people to make it a more positive place. It’s unfortunate that Gawker is trying to turn this campaign into something that it isn’t. Building a bot that attempts to spread hate through #MakeItHappy is a perfect example of the pervasive online negativity Coca-Cola wanted to address with this campaign.”

Coca-Cola was forced to shut the campaign off. But from a digital point of view, the whole situation was probably inevitable. Whenever an automated system is built, clever users will find a way to abuse it. It is rule number one in the Trolls’ Handbook. But, what was Gawker did “trolling”, or were they simply showing the man behind the curtain claiming to be a wizard?
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