So Skittles threw in the towel. They didn't have the stomach for profanities and racial slurs showing up on their "homepage," which they had given over to a Twitter search page showing real-time results for "Skittles." When I wrote about this yesterday, I was thinking of it as a bold move, and even with all the potential pitfalls it would probably still pay off for Skittles in terms of attention.
I wasn't surprised to see how the public played with the shiny new toy Skittles handed to them. What does surprise me, though, is that Skittles seems to have been surprised. Didn't they know this was going to happen? They must have had hours and hours of internal debate about the wisdom of this move. I'm reminded of the movie War Games, where the computer goes haywire at the end and the screen scrolls the list of all the possible conflicts it is programmed to consider, like "USSR first strike" and "Albanian decoy" and "Canadian thrust." In the Skittles war room, didn't they have a big board with "racist hijack" and "profanity blitzkrieg"?
I'm wondering, based on a not-inconsiderable experience with the way decisions can be made in large companies, if someone a level or three above the person who decided to begin this experiment stepped in and decided to end it when they saw how it was going.
Corporate marketers expanding their presence in social media are used to answering the question, "What will you do if someone says something negative about your products or your company?" and the answer usually is something along the lines of, "At least the negative comments will be on our site where we will know about them and can respond in an open, transparent way."
Yes, but what about when there's nothing to respond to, when the negativity is purely for the sake of negativity? That's when we really find out how thick or thin are corporate skins are.
Yesterday I also said, "Naturally, some people can't resist the urge to spam the channel with anti-Skittles childishness, but they'll get tired of that eventually." I just spent five minutes paging through search results and couldn't find a single obscene or racist tweet. While "skittles" was the number one trending topic on Twitter yesterday, it's not even showing up on the top ten today.
Maybe Skittles melted too soon. With the short attention span of online pranksters, maybe they only had to wait another day to get out of the crosshairs. No less a social media personage than Charlene Li has already declared that the Skittles experiment "redefined branding." Maybe they were mere hours away from becoming the social media success story of 2009, rather than a case study of how social media can bite back.
Like the number of licks required to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know