How to alienate your Twitter followers: Chipotle’s staged hack falls flat

Chipotle is quickly learning the cost of a social media stunt gone awry.

On Sunday, the burrito chain sent out cryptic messages on Twitter, making it look like the account had been hacked. The tweets were largely gibberish, such as “Do I have a tweet?”

That prompted Twitter users to ask whether the person running Chipotle’s account was a hacker, inebriated or both. But after confirming that it had faked the attack, the company spent much of Thursday defending itself.


(Screengrab by Hayley Tsukayama/Screengrab by Hayley Tsukayama)

Getting creative is a good thing, but there is a certain art to playing around with your social media followers, said Peter LaMotte, an analyst with the Washington-based strategic communications firm Levick. Stunts like this, which put a brand’s biggest fans at the butt of a joke, hardly ever go over well.

“The cardinal rules of social media are transparency and trust building,” he said. “It is sophomoric and it is dangerous to play with the trust and transparency of your followers and your customer base,” he said.

The negative reaction to Chipotle’s ploy highlights just how difficult it can be for brands to navigate the social media world. Creative stunts can get companies a lot of good exposure. For example, Oreo got a lot of good buzz when it rushed a Twitter ad to its account encouraging snackers to “dunk in the dark” for a power outage during the Super Bowl. But companies have to walk a fine line to make sure their gimmicks are noticeable without turning off the consumers they’re trying to reach, social media experts say.

The Twitter stunt isn’t unprecedented, and the notoriety of a hack can be a good way to grab attention. After Burger King and Jeep saw their accounts breached by real hackers earlier this year, rubberneckers started following those companies in droves.

Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said the company never intended to upset people and denied that the fake hack was simply a ploy to grab followers. “We apologize if anyone felt misled by this or didn’t like how the promotion was handled,” Arnold said.

The messages, he said, were meant to be clues for the company’s “Adventurrito” treasure hunt promotion, in honor of its 20th anniversary.


(Screengrab by Hayley Tsukayama/Screengrab by Hayley Tsukayama)

Overall, however, the strange tweets seem to have worked for Chipotle. The chain saw a 4,000-follower bump on the day of the fake hack and, despite the uproar, its official account still has more followers now than it did before the stunt.

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.

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