Hashtag Hijacking: When a good idea goes bad

Hashtag Hijacking: When a good idea goes bad

ask sea worldHashtags are the slogans of the 21st Century. And if you think coming up with a clever phrase that defines your company is tough, try capturing that concept in under 15 characters. (Need to leave room for the message!)

There have been plenty of successful hashtag campaigns but lately these modern messaging units seem like nothing more than ammunition for the haters. In recent weeks, we’ve seen Sea World floundering to control the backlash from #AskSeaWorld. Starbucks got hit hard for #RaceTogether and now the Mall of America is under fire for #ItsMyMall campaign.

The Mall of America case is particularly odd because of its origin. Here’s the story from USAToday:

The mall created the hashtag, #ItsMyMall as a way for visitors to tweet out their positive “moments and memories” while shopping for a chance to win a $500 Mall of America gift card.

The mall staff said the campaign was created after the al-Shabaab terror group released a video threatening the Mall of America, as a way to support the mall’s fans and tenants.

So, gift cards and good times trumps terrorist threads? Believe it or not, that’s not why the mall ran into trouble. The hijacking came from members of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis who are facing charges after organizing a protest at the mall.


In all three of these case, the brands ran into trouble when they tried to hashtag their way out of a controversial subject. Has that ever worked?

Successful hashtags, like Doritos’ #crashthesuperbowl campaign invite followers to submit fun and frivolous content. Charmin asked people to #TweetYourSeat – that could have gone wrong but mostly it was good “clean” fun.

There are brands who get away with tugging at the heartstrings but those are tricky tags to pull off if you’re not a bone fida charity. When a charity hashtag takes hold though. . . wow. . . it’s the #IceBucketChallenge all over again.

Reverse Hijacking

Zealous Twitter followers aren’t the only people who hijack hashtags, sometimes brands do it in hopes of capitalizing on a trending tag. Campaigning on the fly is a great way to take advantage of the immediacy of social media, but only if you do your homework first.

DiGiorno Pizza chimed in on the #WhyIStayed hashtag without realizing it was a thread about spousal abuse.

Entenmann‘s #NotGuilty was meant to promote low calorie treats but the campaign launched while the hashtag was being used in conjunction with the Casey Anthony murder trial.

Turning a serious hashtag into a punchline is not smart or cool. Unless your brand can add something substantial to the conversation, stay out of it. And if the hashtag is part of a controversial, political, criminal or religious discussion; see the top section of this post.

There are brand campaigns that walked themselves right into trouble the moment they hit submit on that first Tweet. But the reality is that hashtag hijacking has become a popular past time. It’s a competitive game with thousands of players who wake up every morning hoping to find the next gem they can exploit. If you’re the next target, you can either weather the storm or end your campaign.

We’ll wrap it up with some advice from Andy;

If your company has any kind of underlying reputation issue, it is best to avoid a hashtag campaign, unless you are prepared for it to be hijacked. In most cases, some humility and/or humor will go a long way in taking the wind out of any hijacking.