I have a confession to make: I helped exile rap singer Pitbull to a Walmart in Kodiak, Alaska. In participating in the Internet prank that achieved this, however, I also became party a social media campaign that could have resulted in a PR disaster had Walmart handled the situation poorly. Instead, what we saw was a celebration based far more broadly than Walmart could ever have hoped had the corporation and performer not been trolled as hard as they were. The moral of the story I’m about to tell is that due to the highly complex and chaotic environment created by the use of social media, companies cannot reliably predict the impact of online promotions and when or how these might go viral. However, with quick thinking on the ground (and quite possibly a sense of humour) companies can respond quickly and appropriately when they lose control of Internet promotions and even end up appealing to unlikely market segments along the way.
The chain events that brought Pitbull to Kodiak, Alaska started in the Spring of 2012 when Walmart and Sheets Energy Strips launched a campaign that promised a visit from the rapper to any Walmart store that received the most ‘likes’ on Facebook. It is probably important to note that while Pitbull may have no small number of adoring fans, he, Justin Bieber and all the members of Nickleback taken together comprise most of the top-10 list of musicians people love to hate. David Thorpe, one such anti-fan as well as a writer for comedy website somethingawful.com, heard of Walmart’s campaign and decided to start one of his own. Thorpe decided to hijack the contest in order to send Pitbull to the remotest part the USA possible. Kodiak fit the bill nicely, and Thorpe went to announce his devious plan to followers on Twitter using the hashtag #exilepitbull.
Thorpe’s twitter fans were quick to re-tweet his mischievous idea and soon it spread like wildfire on other social media sites such as reddit, 4chan and Facebook. Somewhere along the way I myself jumped on the bandwagon to cast one of the 71,000 or so ‘likes’ for the Kodiak Walmart. This number, incidentally, is many times higher than the town’s estimated population of 6,256. I was also gratified by having done so a few weeks later when I opened Facebook only to be greeted by a photo of an enormous stuffed grizzly bear looming over Pitbull’s shoulder along with the announcement from the local Walmart that the performer was indeed in Kodiak, Alaska. Celebratory postings soon followed on all the social media sites used to publicize the prank.
Thorpe himself reportedly said he was aiming “to disrupt a corporate social media campaign, since they really set themselves up for it.” Meanwhile online media blog The Gawker announced the visit as a victory for the Internet. The real winners, however, are Pitbull and Walmart. At any point along the way, either the company or the rapper could panicked or responded poorly to a promotional campaign spiralling out of control. They could have shut down the contest, tampered with the rules, or responded angrily on Twitter. Instead, during the voting period staff at the Kodiak Walmart posed for a picture while holding a banner proclaiming “We would love to have Pitbull.” A spokesperson for Walmart also reassured reporters regarding the Alaskan store that “If they do win, he is definitely headed there.” Pitbull himself, meanwhile, was tweeting “I hear there’s bear repellent at Kodiak, Alaska” and added Thorpe’s own hashtag #exilepitbull. In other words, everyone involved rolled with the punches and responded to the Thorpe’s prank with grace and good humour.
Now it was likely the case that the companies involved were aiming to appeal to a younger audience by showcasing a seemingly hot and hip performer such as Pitbull. However, by playing along with the joke and carrying through with their promise, Walmart and Pitbull also gained a certain amount of credibility, no matter how grudging, from an unlikely demographic. The kind of person who will find it appealing to exploit a corporation’s own advertising campaign for her own nefarious purposes is likely someone, such as myself, who is already skeptical and suspicious of most marketing activity. For instance, these are the sorts of folks who are currently abandoning Instagram in droves after news went viral that the company was going to use customers’ photos in advertising. And yet it is just these hard-to-market-to people who gratuitously shared photos of an extremely commercialized performer such as Pitbull posing inside a Walmart, a chain that is itself the quintessential beacon of corporate America if ever there was one. You can’t predict when it’s going to happen, but if you’re smart, you can make sure an Internet wildfire serves you instead of letting it devour you.
Finally, I’ll close with a couple more confessions, which is that although I’m still not crazy about shopping at Walmart, you can bet I’d go into the Kodiak one just to see the bear that posed with Pitbull. Meanwhile, I’m also just a smidgen less embarrassed now by the one or two songs by the guy that just happen to be on the iPod I use for the gym.