Coca-Cola has been forced to withdraw a Twitter advertising campaign after a counter-campaign by Gawker tricked it into tweeting large chunks of the introduction to Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
For the campaign, which was called “Make It Happy” and introduced in an ad during the Super Bowl, Coke invited people to reply to negative tweets with the hashtag “#MakeItHappy”.
The idea was that an automatic algorithm would then convert the tweets, using an encoding system called ASCII, into pictures of happy things, such as an adorable mouse, a palm tree wearing sunglasses, or a chicken drumstick wearing a cowboy hat.
In a press release, Coca-Cola said that its aim was to “tackle the pervasive negativity polluting social media feeds and comment threads across the Internet”.
However, Gawker, noticing that one response had the “14 words” white nationalist slogan re-published in the shape of a dog, had other ideas.
The media company’s editorial lab director, Adam Pash, created a Twitter bot, @MeinCoke, and set it up to tweet lines from Mein Kampf and then link to them with the #MakeItHappy tag, which triggered Coca-Cola’s own Twitter bot to turn them into cutesy pictures.
The result was that for a few hours in the morning of February 3, Coca-Cola’s Twitter feed was broadcasting large chunks of Adolf Hitler’s text, albeit built in the forms of a smiling banana or a cat playing a drum kit.
The bot made it as far as making Coke tweet the words, “My father was a civil servant who fulfilled his duty very conscientiously” in the shape of a pirate ship with a face on its sails, wearing a eyepatch, before Coca-Cola’s account stopped responding.
By February 4, the campaign had been suspended entirely. In a statement to Adweek, a spokesperson for Coca-Cola said, “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.”
The statement concluded: “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 is not the only company to have noticed pervasive negativity online. Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo wrote in an internal memo to staff that he was embarrassed by the company’s failure to deal with trolls online.
“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” reads the memo, which was obtained by The Verge on February 4.
“I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing.
“We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.”
Coca-Cola is not the first corporate Twitter user to run into trouble over an automated bot created for advertising purposes. In November 2014, the New England Patriots were forced to apologize after an automatic bot was tricked into tweeting a racial slur from the official team account.
Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, issued a statement on February 6 in response to the @MeinCoke Twitter account, saying, “Coca-Cola did the right thing to suspend their social media ‘#MakeItHappy’ campaign in response to an attempt by extremists to hijack the initiative by promoting a white nationalist slogan.
“It is highly unfortunate that Coca-Cola’s attempt to encourage all of us to make using the Internet a more positive experience encountered this roadblock, and also revealing of how pervasive the challenge is. However, it would be a shame and a mistake to abandon the campaign itself.
“We all have a vested interest in a hate-free Internet. We hope that Coca-Cola will take the necessary steps to continue to promote the ‘make it happy message,’ while guarding against those who would seek to hijack the initiative. This can and should be a teachable moment for Coca-Cola’s social media followers and the broader public.”
In a letter to Muhtar Kent, Coke’s Chairman of the Board and CEO, ADL praised Coca-Cola for “demonstrated leadership with this initiative,” and said that the company’s swift response to the hateful tweets “just underscores how much we need such leadership.”