PR Fail: Cheerios GMO Backlash Goes Social

Cheerios recently tried to make the most of social media as a PR tool by doing what everyone else was already doing: designing Facebook apps to encourage its hundreds of thousands of fans to interact with the brand.

Unfortunately, that plan blew up in the face of parent company General Mills. Cheerios attempted to gain the invisible, invaluable thing we call “brand loyalty” by presenting fans with an app that allowed them to write about “what Cheerios means to me” in the cereal’s trademark font. But the brand’s social team quickly discovered that many Facebook users don’t approve of General Mills’s relationship with genetically modified foods—or its political advocacy on the subject.

The activists’ quick storming of the forum forced Cheerios to kill the app after just one day. Click through for the backstory.

Earlier this year we reported on the fact that the United States remains one of the few industrialized countries whose regulatory agencies do not demand the clear labeling of controversial “genetically modified” foodstuffs. The state of California attempted to eliminate this problem with Proposition 37, which would have required producers and retailers to accurately label their products while forbidding companies that use GMOs from using market-speak phrases like “all natural”, ”naturally derived” and “naturally flavored.” The law suffered a narrow defeat at the ballot box thanks, in large part, to out-of-state funding provided by a coordinated group of multinational brands like General Mills that blitzed the public with a $46 million PR campaign via radio, TV and voters’ mailboxes.

The food bloggers at CheeseSlave captured some of the cleverest messages:

A quick glance at the company’s page reveals a long list of users taking Cheerios to task for refusing to rise to the GMO challenge in the United States (laws in many other countries require companies like General Mills to report the use of GMOs) and promising not to buy the parent company’s products until it does. Will these users’ efforts work? We can’t say, but they’ve certainly created a PR headache for Cheerios. Break out the offensively bland press releases!

The lesson of this story is: Don’t behave in ways that upset your fan base! OK, that one will never sink in, so here’s the next lesson: Don’t give people an open forum to comment on your brand and expect the input to be positive—especially if you’ve very recently chosen to involve yourself in a big political controversy!

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.
Publish date: December 3, 2012 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT