Holy prophylactics, Batman! In a recent online marketing campaign, Durex asked Facebook (FB) fans to vote on which city should get SOS Condoms, a service meant to allow amorous—but unprepared—couples to use a smartphone app or laptop for a rush delivery. The voters chose Batman (pronounced baat-maan), the capital of an oil-rich and conservative-Muslim province in southeastern Turkey. Social media experts say the contest was almost certainly decided by Internet trolls. Batman received 1,577 votes, besting Paris and London, according to the contest’s Facebook page, which has been dormant since the two-month promotion finished in April.
The snafu for Durex, owned by Reckitt Benckiser Group (RB/:LN), illustrates the risks for brands that embrace social media. Marketers expect to devote 22 percent of their budgets to such campaigns over the next five years, versus 8 percent today, according to a survey from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “Any brand that wants to remain engaged with its audience has to have a social media presence,” says Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at researcher EMarketer. “But … there is the opportunity for abuse.”
Just ask McDonald’s (MCD), which in January 2012 paid to sponsor the Twitter hashtag #McDStories, seeking feel-good posts about its restaurants. Instead, commenters made jokes about obesity and dog food, and the company ended the promotion less than two hours after its debut. Mondelez International (MDLZ) fared better during the Super Bowl in February. When the game was delayed due to a lighting failure, the ad agency behind Mondelez’s Oreo cookies tweeted, “Power out? No problem” and included a link to an ad that said, “You can still dunk in the dark.” Although Mondelez hasn’t said whether Oreo sales got a boost, it reports the post was retweeted more than 15,000 times. “That made brands sit up and say, ‘Wow,’ ” says Williamson.
Durex, the world’s best-selling condom brand, might have avoided the hijacking if it had allowed voters to choose from just a handful of cities rather than letting them name anyplace they wanted, says Mark Stone, strategy director at London-based Recipe Advertising. “You want to make sure you have precautions in place to prevent any disruption, as hackers are always looking for an opportunity to cause trouble,” says Stone, who has worked with other Reckitt Benckiser brands, including Scholl foot-care products. “There needs to be a contingency plan.”
The Batman vote represents a rare slip-up for Durex, which has grown steadily over the past three years thanks to new products, expansion in emerging markets, memorable ads, and increased engagement with customers online. One global campaign last year allowed consumers to create and vote for designs for a new Durex box, and the winning submission—an image of a condom drawn to look like a couple hugging—was incorporated into Durex’s new packaging. The effort attracted 50,000 designs and 1.4 million visitors to the contest’s website in six weeks. “We really upped our innovation, our creativity” at Durex, Reckitt Benckiser Chief Executive Officer Rakesh Kapoor told analysts in April.
The company says SOS Condoms, briefly available in Dubai late last year, won’t be offered in Batman or anywhere else. Andraea Dawson-Shepherd, a spokeswoman for Reckitt Benckiser, says that Durex’s social media efforts “will move on to a new sphere.”
Batman was an unlikely outpost for just-in-time condoms, anyway. Condé Nast Traveler has described the city as a “sprawl of nondescript cement buildings on a treeless plateau of no real historical interest” whose primary attraction for tourists is its name. Locals aren’t impressed with this latest notoriety. Winning the Durex campaign “is a big joke,” says Abdurrahman Temelli, a sustainable development consultant from the nearby city of Mardin. “I’m Kurdish, and I know how we are, so this is impossible. Our culture is religious.”