In 2007, the Boston Police were inundated with frightened phone calls claiming bombs had been found throughout the city.
The panic that ensued led to various dramatized news reports, frightened commuters, and an enormous backlash that led to the resignation of a prominent figure.
Al-Qaeda? Isis? Boko-Haram?
Turner Broadcasting's Cartoon Network has a well-known subsidiary focusing on the 15-25 demographic called Adult Swim. One of their most famous programs is a surreal slice-of-life show called Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which was in the process of having a movie for theaters being promoted.
They used a series of Lite-Brite style depictions of the mooninites, snobbish characters of the show, giving the middle finger.
The intention was to get their demographic to take pictures and share on social media. Viral marketing is the process of getting your consumers to share your information for you, often with a funny and short vid or meme.
What they hadn't counted on was how people who didn't recognize the show, chiefly older generations, to respond to LED figures hidden in public areas.
The backlash was enormous, and the Executive Vice President of Cartoon Network, Jim Samples, resigned in response.
The lesson to take home here? Viral Marketing is a brilliant way to generate hype about something short-lived, like a film or limited-time product. But there are enormous risks that should always be weighed, and the more exotic and "outside the box" a viral campaign is, the more likely it will generate a backlash.
Always mete out viral material with traditional advertising as well, and if push comes to shove, stick with vines and dog videos or trending hashtags in lieu of physical artifacts that could be misconstrued.