Korean carmaker Kia has suffered a user backlash on Facebook after the company apparently solicited "likes" in exchange for feeding starving refugees from war-torn Sudan.
Kia posted an image of a tearful African child with the words "1 Like = 1 Day Food for 1 Family" followed by an arrow that pointed to the "like" button on its Facebook page. The company linked the ad to its support for the charity World Vision.
The decision by Kia Motors to associate the promotion of its Facebook page with the support of World Vision's 2012 Global End Poverty Campaign gained almost 4000 likes, but also more than 160 comments, many of them furious.
"You disgust me, fishing for likes on the basis of donating 1 day's nutrition for a family per click," wrote one commenter, Kitty. "Either donate or don't, the emotional blackmail of 'if you don't click it will be one less family who will benefit' is sickening."
''Marketing over a tragedy: You are disgraceful Kia Motors Worldwide,'' Davide Takeshi Corradi said.
Companies routinely run marketing campaigns on Facebook to boost their 'likes' in order to build an audience and increase the reach of their advertising.
As the influence of social media grows, companies have used increasingly creative means such as contests, photo competitions and games to drive up user interaction to raise the profile of the brand.
Many readers interpreted Kia's promotion as a cynical grab for attention.
Reader Oli described it as a "pretty horrific manipulation of people's guilt and empathy to gain some recognition for Kia" that came with no explanation of "how or why a 'like' will help."
"If you really care, Kia, just help them anyway and don't boast about it for your own brand awareness," he wrote. "This has totally put me off Kia for life - quite unforgivable."
Reader Jacek wrote: "Well that's a new low in social media marketing, congratulations!"
In response to the criticism, Kia World Wide said it "did not anticipate this type of interpretation" to the post, which has been live since October 17.
"We did feature the campaign cause link, but we can see how it can be overlooked," the company posted in the comment section, singling out the readers by name who had written supportive comments.
"The photo is the official campaign photograph from World Vision - the non-profit spearheading the End Poverty campaign."
Kia "further clarified" the promotion "to keep World Vision's positive momentum going" earlier this week, altering the wording on the photo to point directly to the World Vision link with the words "Click here to end her tears."
A World Vision New Zealand spokeswoman said Kia's promotion was inappropriate and the organisation would work with the company to "communicate the right messages, in the right way".
"World Vision and Kia have spoken with their respective offices in Korea about this campaign. The portrayal of people living in poverty, and the way they have asked for Facebook 'likes' does jar, but there's no doubt Kia initiated the campaign with the best of intentions," she said.
University of Canberra social media researcher Julie Posetti said that in the social media world "authenticity and transparency are critical commodities" so when Kia tries to leverage 'likes' - in effect, free advertising for the company - by appealing to genuine concern there is potential for a backlash.
"Bottom line: it's rarely a good look to try to leverage potential customers' social concern for hungry, war-orphaned children in the interests of advertising clout," she said.
Kia is no stranger to advertising blunders. Last year, an ad intended for the Brazilian car market juxtaposed images of a primary-school girl with a busty teen in a short skirt, which also set off a firestorm on social media. The US arm of the car maker later issued a statement distancing itself from the advertisement.