United Airlines Breaks Guitars, Can Social Media Fix Them?

Posted: July 18, 2009 in PR, Social Media, The Marketing Industry, Trends, Viral Marketing
Tags: , , , , , ,

In a moment of David v. Goliath gloUnitedry, a United Airlines passenger, David Carroll of the Canadian folk band Sons of Maxwell, has become an interesting thorn in the side of United’s marketing department after his revenge video goes viral on YouTube and beyond.

The backstory here is that about a year ago, Carroll’s guitar was broken by United baggage handlers. After nine months of red tape and ultimately a denied claim for damages, Carrol produced a song and video about the incident. As of this posting there are over 3,250,000 views and over 15,000 comments. It is the fourth link down in the organic search results fo the term “United Airlines” – a classic example of how social media reflects real world problems, and can be amplified to the point of a major PR nightmare for a major brand.

The blogosphere, twitter, and even traditional media (including the Rolling Stone and CNN) picked up the story. United Airlines breaking Caroll’s guitar was in fact the biggest thing that ever happened to his career. “I’ll have a side of invaluable PR with my revenge please”.

There is now a Wikipedia entry about the Son’s of Maxwell (primarily focused on the United Incident), and I assume the number of fans and level of participation on their Facebookpage has increased since the incident (although it is a paltry 3,674 at the time of this post).

Taylor Guitars even posted a response video (rightfully taking full advantage of the PR opportunity) with tips about travelling with guitars:

If you search Google for “United Airlines”, the “United Breaks” Guitars parody sits just above a parody from Mad TV about United employees, which must have been much funnier to United Airlines’ marketing department prior to it reinforcing the current state of the consumer experience. Nonetheless, it’s pretty funny!

Moral of the story…if you have bad customer service – there is no place to run, no place to hide, and apparently no place to fly!

So why did this particular video go viral while others with similar attributes (funny, parody, well seeded in social channels) don’t? Well, first of all, there’s no magic formula. Remember, “viral” is a result, not a marketing discipline. Compelling content shared and distributed in social channels will have the potential to go viral, period. Perhaps the collective comradary surrounding the fact that we’ve all had bad airline experiences helped. One thing is certain – at some point the right combination of social (people/bloggers) and traditional (media) influencers propelled this video and incident into even more hearts, minds, tweets, blogs, emails, and broadcasts. Within the fabric of the social web, momentum begets momentum.

Social media is forcing companies to rethink operational, service and product related issues.  It is vital to address and correct problems proactively, otherwise, inevitably, the problem will force a fix the hard way.


  1. Awesome post! You have a great blog, absolutely the best Ive read so far. I will be looking forward to your next entry. Thanks again.

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