Square Enix, the makers of the Hitman videogame series, recently did something very, very stupid. Their newest marketing campaign consisted of an app that encouraged users to “put a hit on your friends.” Apparently their intent was to get you to threaten your friends on Facebook with murder. What a wonderful idea!

Honestly though, in an era where awareness of cyber bullying is garnering lots of attention, you’d hope a company would think twice before encouraging their customers to “put a hit” on their friends for reasons that include having “awful make-up,” “ginger hair,” an “annoying laugh,” a “strange odour,” “big ears,” a “muffin top,” “hairy legs,” or yes, even “small tits.” Yikes.

Videogames are often quite edgy and intended for “mature audiences”–anyone remember the hoopla upon finding out that one of the Grand Theft Auto games allowed your character to have sex with prostitutes?–but they’re an escapist means of fun. If you object to a game like Hitman, you aren’t being forced to purchase and play it. You can vote with your wallet and choose not to spend your money on games you feel are violent or inappropriate.

However, Square Enix’s “Put a Hit on Your Friends” campaign unfairly dragged people who may not like the game or who don’t particularly want to be bullied online (who does, really?) into a humiliating and mean-spirited spotlight. These targets have no control of receiving a “hit” from someone who is a fan of Square Enix, or even from someone who just wants to be a dick. This disconnect creates a clear, resounding branding problem that requires a considerable amount of damage control.

To their credit, Square Enix’s reaction was relatively quick–they apologized for the app and removed it, issuing the following statement:

“Earlier today we launched an app based around Hitman: Absolution that allowed you to place virtual hits on your Facebook friends. Those hits would only be viewable by the recipient and could only be sent to people who were confirmed friends.

We were wide of the mark with the app and following feedback from the community we decided the best thing to do was remove it completely and quickly. This we’ve now done.

We’re sorry for any offence caused by this.”

Nonetheless, the damage has already been done, and Square Enix looks pretty foolish and short-sighted. Marketing is a tricky endeavor, and obviously something with viral potential (the means to spread quickly and organically across the web) is highly coveted. But there’s a difference between something like Office Max’s hugely successful “Elf Yourself” campaign, in which people can upload pictures of themselves and superimpose them onto dancing cartoon elves to send to their friends during the holiday season, and Square Enix’s efforts that promoted violence, misogyny, and bullying.

Brands shouldn’t be afraid to try something edgy. However, before launching an attention-grabbing campaign, they need to ask themselves the following questions:

  1. How will our existing customers react?
  2. How will our prospective customers react?
  3. How will people who aren’t familiar with our brand react?
  4. Do these reactions line up with our intended effect? (Laughter? Surprise? Revulsion? Offense?)
  5. What’s the likelihood of this campaign negatively affecting our brand, and how would it negatively affect it?

Ask yourself if you’re fine receiving backlash and negative attention (after all, there’s the old adage of “Any press is good press”), or whether you want to avoid overly vitriolic feedback and instead hope for a more positive response. Really scrutinize your marketing ideas–just because it seems like a foolproof way to attract attention doesn’t mean it should be done.