What Marketers Can Learn From Listerine’s Instagram Flop
Analisa Goodin

Marketers are always under pressure to develop innovative ways to reach consumers. This means they have to keep pace with radical shifts in consumer preferences and expectations, many of which are spurred by the adoption of new technology. For example, there are more than 3 billion active social media users, and this has forever changed the way brands interact with consumers. From increased customer engagement to the integration of multiple digital channels, marketers are working hard to leverage the awesome power of social media.

One of the best ways to do this is to deploy content that strikes as being authentic – whether it’s a picture or video produced by a talented well-known artist, independent filmmaker or an everyday social media user — that showcases your brand’s products and services. This is called user-generated content (UGC), and it’s a powerful way to connect with consumers whose daily media landscape is saturated with material produced by peers and other real people online.

But this doesn’t mean all UGC is right for your brand – in some cases, like with influencer content — it can still feel staged like high-dollar commercials produced in a studio. The last thing you want to do is make consumers feel like you’re attempting to deceive them by presenting “authentic” content that has clearly been art-directed for the sole purpose of selling a product.

This is a lesson Johnson & Johnson recently learned when one of its social media “influencers” posted an Instagram photo that received a torrent of ridicule online.

In the picture, Scarlett Dixon is sitting on a bed in pink pajamas surrounded by clouds of heart-shaped balloons. A sign behind her reads “GOOD MORNING,” a plate of tortillas conspicuously disguised as pancakes sits next to her, and a comforter emblazoned with a huge picture of her rests at the foot of the bed. A bottle of Listerine can be seen on a table in the background. In a post next to the picture, she discusses her “morning habit of rinsing with Listerine Advanced White to help whiten my teeth,” and ends with a “paid partnership” disclaimer and Listerine’shashtag: #BringOutTheBold.

Shortly after Dixon put the photo on Instagram, someone posted it on Twitter, pointing out that it looks nothing like “anybody’s normal morning,” and announced that “Instagram is a ridiculous lie factory made to make us all feel inadequate.” It was retweeted 25,000 times and received more than 110,000 likes. The ad was also widely discussed on blogs and news websites.

Instead of generating trust with an endorsement from a satisfied customer, Listerine created animosity and resentment by presenting an image that many consumers regarded as deceptive. What’s worse, the language used in the viral tweet – “lie factory,” “inadequate” – suggests that many consumers feel like brands are consciously trying to hurt them with influencer content on social media.

And consumers aren’t the only ones brands should be concerned about after the Listerine fiasco – they should also be thinking about the influencers they work with. No matter what you think about Dixon’s post, the abuse she received because of it is alarming. A statement on her Instagram account provides a glimpse of how she’s been treated: “Each time I refresh my page, hundreds of new nasty messages pour onto my Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, some of which have contained malicious death threats.”

Every brand that includes UGC  in its marketing efforts should want to prevent something like this from happening to its collaborators. Dixon’s experience will likely serve as a deterrent for many content creators who are interested in working with big brands.

One of the most striking facts about the furor over Dixon’s Listerine ad is the fact that the post itself is a pretty typical example of influencer content. There are countless pictures that are clearly embellished and idealized, many of which have been used by brands that are seeking access to large influencer followings on sites like Instagram. As Dixon notes in her statement, her posts are intended to be exaggerated: “Sometimes my photos are whimsical and OTT [over the top] and a little too pink, but I’m not presenting this as an ‘idealistic’ version of life that young girls should aspire to”.

But brands can’t expect all consumers to appreciate nuances like these – with posts from social media influencers, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s supposed to be a reflection of real life and what’s purposely artificial. Even though Dixon didn’t expect her followers to think her Instagram post was an accurate snapshot of her daily routine, it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many people still bristled at how far removed it was from their own experiences. After all, much of the content we see from our friends and family on social media is on par with what we perceive to be real-life experiences we all have in common, which is why the seamless blend with sponsored content often feels unnatural.

According to a survey conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, consumers across generations (particularly Millennials) cited authenticity as one of the best ways for brands to “engage and interest” them. While UGC and other forms of content  remain integral to effective marketing campaigns, brands should remember that consumers appreciate this content for a reason: it resonates with their lived experiences. In many ways, authenticity is just another word for trustworthiness – consumers want brands to be honest with them.

Social media is a great way to satisfy this demand, but brands need to recognize that consumers’ expectations aren’t the same across mediums. Because social media contains a blend of personal and commercial content, clear distinctions should be made between the posts that purport to represent real life and the ones that don’t. While plenty of UGC looks like Dixon’s Listerine ad and doesn’t spark any online conflagrations, it’s impossible to predict which posts might end up going viral.

That’s why brands should always be careful about the content they decide to use. It’s one thing to work with a well-known social media influencer just so you can check the “authentic content” box and move on. It’s something quite different to find and publish content that will really speak to the concerns and interests of your customers.

Analisa Goodin is the Founder & CEO of Catch&Release, a venture-backed technology company that enables brands and advertisers to discover and license user-generated content from the internet.