Coca-Cola is the latest company to feel the sting of a social media marketing effort gone awry, after customers began attacking each other on the company's Facebook page.
An invitation for customers to post one-word additions to the previous posters' comments has elicited dozens of obscene or inflammatory comments on the company's Australian Facebook page.
"Here is a little social experiment," Coca-Cola Australia announced on its official Facebook page on Monday. "Add a word to the person above you to create a happy story!"
Among the responses, which totalled more than 700 in a day, commenters added obscenities and insults - sometimes directed at each other.
"Clearly 98% of the uneducated people commenting have no idea how to conduct themselves within a social environment therefore making this experiment futile," wrote one poster in response to the breakdown in civility. "Shame, would've been interesting ..."
Another poster wrote: "Seems like there are a lot of imbociles (sic) commenting here and not just playing the game ... get it together human race ... you never used to be like this ... you all need to grow a brain." The same comment included obscenity-laced sentences.
The "experiment", administered by parent company Coca-Cola South Pacific, rather than local bottler Coca-Cola Amatil, is the latest in a string of corporate fumbles in new media in Australia.
Qantas launched a Twitter marketing campaign in October that backfired, with irate customers using the hashtag #qantasluxury to vent frustrations with customer service.
After Westpac raised its mortgage rates outside out Reserve Bank move in February, the bank's Facebook page was peppered with angry comments, which it then removed. The bank said that some of the comments removed were racist or inappropriate in nature.
Coca-Cola confirmed that it was forced to delete comments to the "experiment" that were outside the company's "house rules" on interaction on its Facebook page. Those rules include prohibitions on messages that are "inappropriate or which portrays or condones the consumption of alcohol or illegal substances or activities, or which may be offensive to others."
"Earlier this week, we posted a status update that attracted 781 responses," the company said. "Around 70 responses were removed as they were not in keeping with our 'house rules'."
As more companies adopt social media strategies, allowing customers to share their thoughts, they run the risk of more of this sort of backlash, according to industry experts.
US-based online security company Symantec estimates that social media incidents cost the typical company US$4 million over the year to July.
The group found that 46 per cent of incidents involved employees sharing too much information on public forums, while 41 per cent involved the loss or exposure of confidential information.
More than a third of cases - 37 per cent - raised a company's risk of litigation.
"Many crises for companies start with user generated content," said Lucio Ribeiro managing director and strategist at Melbourne-based The Online Circle, which advises companies on strategies for their social media presence.
While not commenting directly on Coca-Cola's situation, Mr Ribeiro suggested that companies use Facebook's moderation blacklists to better protect themselves from undesirable postings.
However, deleting a Facebook poster's comments can invite another set of public relations problems because "vocal" determined posters will use screen grabs of their initial comments which they can paste elsewhere, Mr Ribeiro said.
He suggested that Facebook page administrators should flag the comments as "spam" allowing them to be viewed by the poster and their Facebook friends, without being scrubbed from the company page.