Marketing Misdirection: Why Brands Make Mistakes On Purpose

5 insights for social­ly-savvy brands on har­ness­ing the pow­er of con­sumer schaden­freude.

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

There is per­haps some­thing innate­ly human in the desire to cor­rect mis­takes. And that desire is some­times accom­pa­nied with a cer­tain sense of glee or even smug­ness in the observ­er. Some might even call it schaden­freude. And in the nev­er-end­ing mar­ket­ing quest to cut through noise on social, a num­ber of brands are mak­ing mis­takes on pur­pose with the spe­cif­ic inten­tion of tap­ping into this human behav­ior, or at the least, to pique con­sumers’ inter­est. Recent/notable exam­ples have come from brands like Host­ess, as well as and JCPen­ney.

While mak­ing a mis­take can be quite pow­er­ful on a sin­gle occa­sion, it’s a strat­e­gy with some­what lim­it­ed effec­tive­ness in terms of repeata­bil­i­ty. So, oth­er than snag­ging con­sumers’ atten­tion in a sin­gle moment, why do brands do it? And what do oth­er brands need to know before try­ing out this strat­e­gy?

We talked to the brands them­selves, as well as adver­tis­ing exec­u­tives, to find out.


For major league baseball’s Open­ing Day, snack brand Host­ess post­ed a tweet that jum­bled sports lin­go with the cap­tion, “Touch­down.”

It is per­haps the most recent exam­ple of brands pur­pose­ly mak­ing mis­takes in order to gen­er­ate buzz and/or to make a point.

Since embark­ing on the ‘Sweet­est Come­back in the His­to­ry of Ever’ near­ly two years ago, Host­ess has employed a strat­e­gy aimed at con­tem­po­riz­ing the brand. The bold­er approach has been par­tic­u­lar­ly vis­i­ble in the brand’s social media plat­forms,” accord­ing to Ellen Copak­en, senior direc­tor of mar­ket­ing at Host­ess. “The ‘Touch­down’ line was inten­tion­al; it’s fun and aimed at young audi­ences who are in on the run­ning joke — which, of course, is the goal­l­ll.”

The tweet itself gen­er­at­ed about 1,400 retweets and 950 favorites and an unsci­en­tif­ic review of the com­ments reveals a mix of con­fu­sion and/or con­sumers jump­ing to cor­rect Host­ess’ mis­take, as well as those laugh­ing at what they believe to be Host­ess’ own con­fu­sion and still more Twit­ter users extend­ing the joke fur­ther with addi­tion­al sports metaphors.

Host­ess cer­tain­ly isn’t the first brand to attempt to cap­ture con­sumer atten­tion in this man­ner. For its part, employ­ment web­site Mon­ster con­grat­u­lat­ed the wrong team as the 2015 Super Bowl vic­tor in a tweet that also high­light­ed the brand’s own ser­vices.

Mon­ster, which has pre­vi­ous­ly adver­tised in the Super Bowl, but opt­ed out in Super Bowl XLIX, want­ed to still par­tic­i­pate in the moment and in kick­ing around ideas, set­tled on the con­cept of con­grat­u­lat­ing the wrong team, said Matt Anchin, Monster’s senior vice pres­i­dent of glob­al com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

A lot of peo­ple were ner­vous. A lot of the com­pa­ny is Boston-based, so if [New Eng­land] lost and we said, ‘Con­grat­u­la­tions,’ we were not sure if we would have employ­ees with torch­es and pitch­forks,” Anchin said.

In addi­tion, the brand knew many view­ers would see the tweet on mobile devices and Twit­ter would only dis­play the thumb­nail, so only those users who actu­al­ly clicked on the tweet would see the com­plete mes­sage and under­stand the joke.

Indeed, many of the ini­tial com­ments point to Monster’s mis­take until, Anchin said, “The crowd did what every­one hopes for, which is self-polic­ing and cor­rect­ing, jump­ing in to say, ‘It was a joke! They did it on pur­pose.’”

The goal was to come up with “some enter­tain­ing and engag­ing tweets” and “some­thing that sparks con­ver­sa­tion” among mil­len­ni­als, Anchin said.

The tweet itself result­ed in 4,400 retweets and 2,700 favorites, and, Anchin said, the brand saw a 1,700 per­cent increase in activ­i­ty from a typ­i­cal Sun­day. In addi­tion, he notes, “We saw a few peo­ple delete their tweets when they real­ized they total­ly missed it and before we could count them and ana­lyt­ics could get them.”

What’s more, Anchin said, some employ­ees with­in Mon­ster want­ed to repeat the effort for oth­er events like the Oscars, but “we decid­ed to take a much more judi­cious approach. I think it will lose its val­ue if we over­play it.”

How­ev­er, he said, “We would def­i­nite­ly do it again if we felt it was a good and oppor­tune moment.”


Retail­er JCPen­ney, too, opt­ed for an in-game mis­take strat­e­gy for the 2014 Super Bowl in a series of typo-laden tweets that the brand lat­er revealed to be the result of #Tweet­ing­With­Mit­tens.

With the game tak­ing place out­doors in cold weath­er, we thought it could be a fun way to pro­mote our Go USA mittens…especially with the Olympics just around the cor­ner,” said Kate Coul­tas, senior man­ag­er of media rela­tions and cor­po­rate affairs at JCPen­ney.

Accord­ing to Coul­tas, the first tweet gen­er­at­ed 15 retweets per sec­ond and the entire series of tweets ulti­mate­ly received more than 50,000 retweets. The brand also gained 8,500 fol­low­ers that night.

In addi­tion, the brand did­n’t want to wait for a spon­ta­neous real-time moment, as Oreo did in the 2013 Super bowl.

Ulti­mate­ly, instead of try­ing to find the per­fect tweet for the per­fect moment, we essen­tial­ly cre­at­ed our own strat­e­gy. In the process, oth­er brands even draft­ed off of us to find their own moment,” she said. That includes Kia and Dori­tos.

If you fac­tor in that the game was a slow and peo­ple were look­ing for enter­tain­ment on their sec­ond screen ­ it end­ed up being a per­fect storm,” she added.

Per Coul­tas, the ini­tia­tive gar­nered near­ly 300 mil­lion media impres­sions and an Exact­Tar­get study found JCPen­ney was the sec­ond most talked about brand on Twit­ter dur­ing the Super Bowl and the fifth most men­tioned.

This was our first time we’ve done some­thing like this before and per­haps we would con­sid­er [it] again should it be appro­pri­ate for the sit­u­a­tion,” she said.

A Brief History Of Misdirection

This strat­e­gy is noth­ing new, accord­ing to Bri­an Har­ris, cre­ative direc­tor at adver­tis­ing agency BaM. In fact, he said so-called mis­di­rec­tion in adver­tis­ing goes back to the Mad Men era with adver­tis­ing cre­ative direc­tor William Bernbach’s infa­mous “Lemon” ad for Volk­swa­gen.

It was shock­ing to peo­ple that a com­pa­ny would run an ad that seem­ing­ly called the prod­uct a lemon,” Har­ris said. “Of course, this tick­led the curios­i­ty of the read­er who would then read the copy to dis­cov­er that the car pic­tured above was a lemon because the inspec­tor at the fac­to­ry noticed there was a blem­ish on the glove com­part­ment, which was then fixed. The point was that they actu­al­ly had a high­er stan­dard of what ‘lemon’ meant than oth­er car man­u­fac­tur­ers.”

Fur­ther, Har­ris notes that even though this tac­tic was a suc­cess for Volk­swa­gen, it is still only used selec­tive­ly.

Most mar­keters don’t have the stom­ach to risk rely­ing on the curios­i­ty of the read­er or view­er. Every copy­writer can tell you a sto­ry about how mar­keters gen­er­al­ly fear neg­a­tiv­i­ty in any form to the point of nev­er using words like ‘nev­er’ or ‘not’ or ‘no’ in head­lines,” he said. “Social is open­ing the doors to a more dar­ing type of mar­keter, but I wouldn’t say that there has been some sort of risk rev­o­lu­tion.”

So where does that leave brands that want to per­haps lever­age this strat­e­gy? What should they do?

Here are five insights from agency exec­u­tives.

1. Don’t Mess With Consumers Just To Mess With Them

There has to be a strat­e­gy behind the cam­paign and the cre­ative has to be top-notch.

It’s a marketer’s job to shape how con­sumers think about a brand or prod­uct, said Eric Ful­wiler, social media direc­tor at Mullen.

That emo­tion­al path does­n’t always have to be lin­ear – you don’t have to always just tell some­one exact­ly what to think. In fact, some­times it can be more effec­tive to take them down a more inter­est­ing path with a few twists and turns,” he said. “When peo­ple fig­ure some­thing out on their own it’s much more effec­tive. And that’s not just mar­keter-speak. There are plen­ty of psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies out there that prove how emo­tion­al par­tic­i­pa­tion impacts mem­o­ry and asso­ci­a­tion.”

Ful­wiler goes on to call the Mon­ster post “bril­liant.”

It pulls you in, makes you gasp in shock, then guides you to the solu­tion your­self,” he said, also point­ing to anoth­er good exam­ple in Snick­ers’ recent exten­sion of the “You’re not you when you’re hungry”-campaign with YouTube vlog­gers post­ing unchar­ac­ter­is­tic videos.

2. Do It If It Advances Your Brand Voice, POV & Purpose

That’s accord­ing to Susan Cre­dle, chief cre­ative offi­cer at Leo Bur­nett.

If not, this tech­nique is trolling and just because you are brand does not mean it is any more accept­able,” she said.

Den­nis Claus, group direc­tor of mobile and social plat­form at R/GA, agrees brands need a spe­cif­ic goal with this tech­nique. The Mon­ster tweet was care­ful­ly designed with a clear tie to the brand mes­sage. JCPen­ney, how­ev­er, missed the mark because the 2014 Super Bowl wasn’t actu­al­ly as cold as it was expect­ed to be.

[It] was pre­dict­ed it was going to be very cold – one of cold­est in the his­to­ry of mankind – but it was in the 50s or 60s…so it felt very unnat­ur­al when it turned out to not be cold, but they still [used mit­tens],” Claus said.

3. Stay Away From Devout Fan Bases

If Host­ess made a joke about Zayn Malik leav­ing One Direc­tion, they would have had a full-out Twit­ter riot on their hands,” Har­ris said. “I think they felt safe with base­ball, because the aver­age fan is old­er [and] not as like­ly to be on Twit­ter and even the least knowl­edge­able sports fan knows the dif­fer­ence between touch­down and home run. It was tru­ly sur­pris­ing to see how many peo­ple took the bait and tried to cor­rect them.”

4. Find Opportunities In Trends & Events People Care About

Any trend or top­ic that peo­ple care about offers an oppor­tu­ni­ty for brands to use this approach.

While the three ear­li­er exam­ples had ties to sports, Ful­wiler said the tac­tic isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly spe­cif­ic to sports, but rather to cul­tur­al trends or events.

How­ev­er, Claus said he doesn’t think it is a coin­ci­dence that so many exam­ples have sports ties because sports are pop­u­lar and it’s easy to make mis­takes with them.

Peo­ple are very pas­sion­ate and so if you troll them, you’ll get a lot of response,” Claus said. “If you high­light the wrong win­ner of a chess tour­na­ment, you won’t get a response, but if you mis­name the win­ner of the Super Bowl, you’ll get back­lash.”

5. Consider The Consequences

Pur­pose­ful mis­takes cut through the noise on social, to be sure, but they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly cre­ate rel­e­vant engage­ment. So: Don’t just look at the short-term atten­tion, but also con­sid­er the long-term impli­ca­tions, Claus said.

It’s impor­tant with schaden­freude mar­ket­ing and troll mar­ket­ing to think beyond one day of glo­ry and to real­ly con­sid­er the con­se­quences,” he added.

What’s your take? Is it a mis­take for brands to pur­pose­ful­ly make mis­takes, or is it good mar­ket­ing?

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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