When “Viral Gotchas” go wrong…

Gawker and NYTimes notes: ConAgra Forced to Apologize for Tricking Bloggers Into Eating Marie Callender’s Three Meat and Four Cheese Lasagna

I am coining the term “Viral Gotcha” for the recent slate of video fake-outs like the current Febreeze Dirty Room Gotchas, the Dominos Fake Focus Group on a Farm Gotchas, the Microsoft Personal PC Store In Your Home Gotchas…while the core concept isn’t new, Candid Camera on down to Pepsi Taste Test have mined the mirth in setting up a scene and revealing that consumers (and actors alike) got punk’d, faked out, “gotcha’d” as Sarah Palin would say.

Food conglomerate ConAgra hired the PR firm Ketchum for a fun promotional stunt: it would invite a bunch of food bloggers to a fancy dinner at an Italian restaurant, then reveal that they’d actually been served frozen ConAgra food-like products instead of real food. Needless to say, ConAgra’s Marie Callender’s Three Meat and Four Cheese Lasagna Viral Gotchas aren’t playing out as intended amongst influential bloggers.

The teachable moment for marketers can be gleaned from NYTimes – WRONG TARGETING:

But while consumers tend to laugh along with the ruse, ConAgra was about to learn that bloggers, who often see themselves as truth-seeking journalists, find the switcheroo less amusing, especially when it entails them misleading their readers beforehand.

“Our entire meal was a SHAM!” wrote Suzanne Chan, founder of Mom Confessionals, in a blog post after the event. “We were unwilling participants in a bait-and-switch for Marie Callender’s new frozen three cheese lasagna and there were cameras watching our reactions.”

On FoodMayhem.com, a blog by Lon Binder and Jessica Lee Binder,Mr. Binder wrote that during a discussion led by Mr. Lempert before the meal, Mr. Binder spoke against artificial ingredients while Ms. Binder mentioned being allergic to food coloring. When the lasagna arrived, Ms. Binder was served a zucchini dish, while Mr. Binder was served lasagna.

“We discussed with the group the sad state of chemical-filled foods,” wrote Mr. Binder. “And yet, you still fed me the exact thing I said I did not want to eat.” (Among the ingredients in the lasagna: sodium nitrate, BHA, BHT, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate.)

On the evening she attended, Cindy Zhou wrote on her blog, Chubby Chinese Girl, that during the pre-meal discussion, she “pointed out that the reason I ate organic, fresh and good food was because my calories are very precious to me, so I want to use them wisely.”

She continued, “Yet they were serving us a frozen meal, loaded with sodium.” (An 8-ounce serving of the lasagna contains 860 milligrams of sodium, 36 percent of the recommended daily allowance.)

“I’m NOT their target consumer and they were totally off by thinking I would buy or promote their highly processed frozen foods after tricking me to taste it,” Ms. Zhou wrote.

As negative comments on blogs, Twitter and Facebook grew, ConAgra canceled the fifth evening and vowed not to use the hidden-camera footage for promotional purposes.

“Once we sensed it was not meeting attendees’ expectations, that’s where we stopped, we listened and we adjusted,” said Ms. Moritz, of ConAgra.

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