Imagine that you’re sitting on your couch watching television one day and a commercial for Burger King comes on. You watch the hilarious antics of Burger King “employees” unfold when, suddenly, the camera is stolen away by none other than Ronald McDonald.
Only it isn’t really Ronald, rather an obvious prankster in a low-rent Ronald McDonald outfit inexplicably giving shout outs to random friends and acquaintances while dispensing the virtues of McDonald’s.
This would never happen of course; TV commercials are taped in advance and therefore immune to such ridiculous hijinks. However, pretty much this exact scenario occurred last week on Twitter, as Burger King found their account hacked by members of the LulzSec hacking group and changed to one big advertisement for their biggest competitor, McDonald’s.
“We just got sold to McDonalds(sic)! Look for McDonalds(sic) in a hood near you,” was the tweet that signaled the start of what was a very confusing Monday morning for some, not least of which was Burger King which actually saw its account suspended and its “verified” status—Twitter’s method of assuring an account’s authenticity—removed. The account was eventually recovered.
What might be the funniest (or most unfortunate, depending on your point of view) element to the debacle was several Internet news sources, likely in a rush to report what they believed to be a scoop, mistook the hack and its initial tweet to be McDonald’s way of reporting their actual purchase of Burger King, despite the unprofessional nature of the “announcement.” Those posts have since been removed or amended entirely.
But, the reason I used “might” in the previous paragraph is because both the funniest and most unfortunate reaction to this series of events is actually the exploitation that one company in particular took to in the wake of this hack attack.
Before we get to that, however, it’s important we talk about the reason companies like Burger King are on social media. Simply put, this is where the people are. I’ve touched on the concept of social media still being a business; the “powers that be” involved with some of the most popular sites are only really interested in getting users online and keeping them there.
As such, a site like Burger King wants you to follow them on Twitter because they want to be as visible to you as possible. There’s a bit more to it than that, but for the most part, the concept of being able to be directly connected to the people that they hope will give them money is a paramount motivation for these companies.
Going back to the hack a week ago, Burger King’s twitter account actually gained followers while they were under LulzSec control—as many as 30,000, according to a Synthesio infographic.
The rational person would look at this number and think, “Well of course the account increased in followers. Obviously, people were interested in the hackers’ antics and followed the account in order to (literally) follow them more closely.”
The marketing geniuses at Viacom, however, looked at this sudden gain and saw only dollar signs. After all, marketing is about visibility, right?
The following day saw MTV’s and BET’s respective Twitter accounts “hacked” each other; several tame (read: lame) tweets lampooning the other network followed before MTV’s account finally revealed the whole thing was a “masterful” prank the company had played on itself.
Just how effective this gambit was, it’s difficult to say, but it’s much easier to say that the idea itself is stupid and more than a little dangerous. In an interview with the Verge, Joe McCaffrey of the marketing firm HUGE said the stunt was “bad timing,” but I can’t help but feel like “bad taste” is more like it. Should we really encourage or, worse yet, glamorize and make light of such hacking?
More importantly to Viacom, is it really smart to deceive the millions of followers your accounts have? That was rhetorical.
Luckily, another member of Viacom’s family, Stephen Colbert, added some well-timed comedy to the situation when he pretended that his personal account @StephenAtHome had been hacked by the cable channel VH1 Classic. As always, Colbert kept the ridiculous situation in perspective; annoying and perhaps dangerous, but mostly just darn stupid.
Ultimately, I urge in this column for people to be themselves on social media. I never imagined I’d have to say that so literally to billion dollar companies, but then again social media tends to be unpredictable.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to Five Guys. I read on Twitter that they’d been bought by In-N-Out, so it must be true.