It’s nothing new for a company to plan a marketing campaign aimed at taking a rival down a few pegs. The practice has been around for years and it can be an effective, and often humorous, way to make your brand look good. However, the advent of social media and new communication platforms means that companies may need to reconsider when and how to deploy attack ads.

The most recent example is Microsoft’s Twitter campaign using the hashtag #DroidRage, aimed at encouraging people who had problems with malware on Android devices to switch to Windows phones. The hashtag quickly roused the ire of happy Android fans and soon #WindowsRage was being used across Twitter to share stories and complaints about Microsoft and its products.

Why does this tactic become so risky on social media? Here are some points to consider before your brand gets too heated in attacking a competitor.

Fast, Easy Forums for Disagreement

Attack ads have long been the bread and butter of political campaigns on television. This approach to putting down a rival while making yourself look better has two opposing effects. The people who agree with you will probably grow stronger in their opinions, but those who disagree will also be reaffirmed in their thoughts. When opponents see an attack ad on TV, all they can do is yell at the screen. With social media, though, they can take to forums and post comments voicing all those frustrations publicly.

It then takes little time for that displeasure to snowball across social networks. An angry comment or tweet made by the right (or wrong) person can turn into an uncontrollable contest of who can come up with the funniest way to mock the attacker. Because social networks are built on encouraging openness and sharing, a hostile attitude on social media can quickly foster more hostile attitudes by thousands (or millions) of people following the conversation.

Negativity From Companies Isn’t Appreciated

Despite the fact that social media audiences can be ruthless in their negative commentaries about companies, those same people usually frown upon businesses being negative toward each other. Every election year, voters are frequently turned off by the prevalence of attack ads. Even though the campaign style is commonplace, polls usually show that the general populace dislikes the belittling of opposing candidates. One of the usual arguments against attack ads is that they may skew the truth, making it impossible for a voter to understand what a candidate’s real positions and priorities are.

To translate that scenario into the world of business, attack ads could be obscuring your own company’s reputation, mission, and products. If your spot verges more toward outright aggression than lighthearted teasing, you risk losing the interest and respect of your customers. Attack ads present a very definite company attitude to your audience, and it doesn’t take much for that audience to decide it doesn’t want to be bothered with negativity. A miscalculated attack ad can lead people to unfollow or unsubscribe from your brand and spend their money elsewhere.

You Can’t Erase the Past

Everything in online media gets archived and can be pulled out from the past with just a few keystrokes. It’s a double-edged sword about social media. While it means that you can have logs of successful correspondences with customers, any misstatements, mistakes, or mishaps will also be recorded for posterity.

Even if you quickly remove an offending status or photo, your audience will almost certainly be quick enough to grab a screencap. And, as in the case of Microsoft and #DroidRage, a major blowup between top brands will be scrutinized and written up by many tech blogs.

In the case of an accidental post, a company can take quick measures to repair any damages. But a direct attack is much harder to excuse and can result in permanently burned bridges. There’s no telling when the company you’re attacking could be a potential partner down the road. It could also come back to bite you even if you have no further interactions with the rival company in question. Any outside brand looking into your history will probably see the negative campaign and be soured against your company.

What’s your opinion about attack ads on social media? Let us know in the comments!

[Image credits: Frog and Onion, David Goehring, Ben Husmann, Ginny]