As you probably already know, many people — gay and straight — are concerned about the Winter Olympics taking place in Russia during a time when the country’s leadership has undertaken an effort to effectively criminalize homosexuality, equating non-straight sexual orientations with pederasty.
Groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, have already asked many of the major sponsors of the 2014 games to reconsider associating their brands with the event, to no avail.
Earlier this week, the McDonald’s Twitter account attempted to get people in the Olympic spirit with a Tweet that read, “We’re kicking off a way to send your well wishes to any Olympian today. Are you ready to send your #CheersToSochi?” and linked to the company’s Cheers to Sochi website.
In the days since, those opposing McDonald’s involvement in the Sochi games have taken that #CheersToSochi hashtag and used it to tag Tweets expressing disappointment and anger at McD’s.
A search for the #CheersToSochi tag turns up a massive (and growing) number of protest Tweets, directed not just at McDonald’s, but also at other Olympics sponsors like Coca-Cola and Dow.
“Social media campaigns are particularly perilous, given that they are far more a dialogue than a monologue, as McDonald’s found out,” writes HuffPo’s Scott Wooledge about the backlash. “The company is usually a Chatty Cathy to folks on Twitter; they have not responded to any LGBT objectors.”
In fact, while McDonald’s has continued to link to its Cheers to Sochi website, it looks like it has abandoned the #CheersToSochi hashtag, most recently using it two days ago.
While it has not responded directly to Tweets, McDonald’s has released a statement to the Chicago Tribune:
“McDonald’s supports human rights, the spirit of the Olympics and all the athletes who’ve worked so hard to compete in the Games… We believe the Olympic Games should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and athletes.”
Turning a marketing hashtag against the company that started it has been done before. In Dec. 2012, Starbucks made the mistake of asking UK customers to share happy Tweets with a #SpreadTheCheer tag. These Tweets would then show up on a huge public display in London. Instead of feeling the holiday cheer, anti-Starbucks Twitter users took the opportunity to use the hashtag on Tweets protesting the company’s controversial tax breaks in the UK.