The importance of authenticity & ethics in social media – the #amexbeinspired Twitter #fail

Tonight was the launch of a new initiative by the credit card company American Express called ‘Amex be inspired’.

According to the Facebook page there was a launch tonight by the actor Kevin Spacey of an initiative to help young people reach their potential through the charity the Prince’s Trust. The idea is that every tweet answering ‘what inspires you?’ using the hashtag #amexbeinspired or Facebook mention will result in a 50p donation by American Express to the charity. So far so worthy you might think.

Then you start to think, ‘what’s a credit card company doing working with a charity which has always focused on young people getting out of poverty?’ It grates. Immediately a few people on Twitter and in particular a guy called @piglungs began to see a way to sabotage this campaign (knowing that at the same time they were effectively donating 50p each time they tweeted to charity). Most of @piglungs’ tweets aren’t repeatable here, but here are a couple:

Tweet reads 'you inspire in me a desperate desire to live in a world that doesn't have credit in it'Tweet reads 'you inspire people to see debt as the price of love'This brings me to the importance of authenticity in social media. People who use social media aren’t stupid, they can see through a cutesy corporate campaign like this and American Express have walked right into a storm of ridicule because of it. It’s the equivalent of a teacher trying to ‘get down with the kids’ (probably by using that phrase for a start!) and failing miserably! @piglungs put it well:

Tweet reads 'you inspire me to make a list of the worst uses of social media I've ever seen. Which starts 1. #amexbeinspired

If you’re going to use social media you have to be authentic and have integrity. I applaud this company’s desire to give to charity but to associate your company name so closely with the idea of ‘inspiration’ and with lifting young people out of poverty when your business is quite probably one of the reasons those young people are in poverty is hypocrisy of the highest order. With social media you have to realise that this is a two way discussion, if you invite people to tweet using a hashtag and you haven’t thought through the ethics of your campaign – people will playfully subvert what you’re trying to do.

So, I will take away from this the following golden rules:

  • be authentic
  • have integrity
  • match your campaigns to your ethos and core business aims (don’t try and be something you’re not)
  • consider the ethics of your campaign, what objections might people have?
I’ll be intrigued to see if anything further happens with this tomorrow – it’s 11.30pm on Thursday 8th September as I write this, I hope people will continue to tweet #amexbeinspired but in a subversive way – this way we can point out the folly of American Express and make a bit of money for the brilliant charity that is the Prince’s Trust!

Thank you American Express for helping us all to learn from your digital marketing mistakes!

Interestingly I have just visited the Prince’s Trust website and there is no mention on the front page of #amexbeinspired except in a small press release – a very wise decision – take the money by all means but this is clearly about making American Express look like they’re doing their bit for corporate responsibility and not really about the Prince’s Trust or young people.

Update 9th September, 7.30pm

A few things have happened since I originally wrote this post that I just wanted to add as an update.

The most significant discovery is what Anthony pointed out in the comments on this blog and that is that it appears that American Express had committed to give £150,000 to the Prince’s Trust regardless of how many tweets or Facebook updates are made. It seems that if more tweets than the value of £150,000 were made that they wouldn’t actually pay out. This implies that they were always intending to make (in the grand scheme of things) quite a modest donation and then built this ‘be inspired’ campaign around it. The terms and conditions laid out by AmEx of the campaign state:

‘We’ve had to set a realistic commitment for The Prince’s Trust so they can get planning the programmes that will offer life changing skills and experiences to the young people they reach out to; and we have committed to giving £150,000 to The Prince’s Trust this year.’

So although I suggested originally that we should tweet to make as much money for the charity as possible, there is actually no point – all it will do is raise awareness of American Express (which is what they were intending all along).

Update again 9pm:

@Amexbeinspired just tweeted the following: Every inspiration counts. We committed £150K to The Prince’s Trust at minimum but hope for 1m inspirations up to £500K.

This is great news, more money for the Prince’s Trust! (Although I have my doubts that they’ll reach 1m tweets). Thanks for spotting this Jame! (see comments below).

So far I have found these other articles about the failure of this social media campaign:


Which? Conversation:

SMI Intelligence in Social Media:

I will add to this if I find any more or feel free to let me know of any others in the comments below. Keep an eye on the twitter stream by typing #amexbeinspired into the search bar on Twitter.


  1. Looking at the FAQ on their facebook page, they are actually a bit cagey about whether they will give 50p for every tweet if they get loads of tweets

    What if you get over a million tweets?
    We would be over the moon if we received so many inspirations. But we’ve had to set a realistic commitment for The Prince’s Trust so they can get planning the programmes that will offer life changing skills and experiences to the young people they reach out to; and we have committed to giving £150,000 to The Prince’s Trust this year.

    They also have committed to giving £150,000 even if they dont get enough tweets.

    So I dont see the point of people tweeting this hash tag except to raise the profile of American Express


    • Thanks for pointing this out Anthony, they’ve not done themselves many favours. Someone didn’t think this strategy through properly. What a cynical way to make a £150,000 donation to charity.


  2. That’s a really disingenuous answer from Amex – it’s saying that they are only giving £150,000 so it gives the Prince’s Trust time to start planning projects. Surely the Prince’s Trust would rather wait a couple months before planning anything if it means they could potentially get a million or 2?

    It should read “the marketing department has been given a budget and £150,000 is the budget. Out of our billions in profit we feel that donating £150,000 to charity is adequate”.


    • Thanks for your comment. I wasn’t aware of Chase Giving but having just looked it up there are similarities in that Chase Giving is a credit card company giving money to charity but it seems that Chase Giving is more about JP Morgan saying they have $15m to give to charity and letting individuals vote for who should receive it. That is quite different from the AmEx campaign which was built around a gift of £150,000 and one charity. You could do an interesting comparison of the two campaigns and quite quickly I think realise why one was successful and the other not.


      • So to summarize, because Chase held a vote and played with a larger sum of money, that makes them more “authentic” and “transparent.” Is that correct? If Amex offered a choice of charity and more money, they would be in the clear?

        When Chase launched their “Giving” campaign, the prize money totaled $1 million. Amex started with a quarter million dollars. Even though Chase has now upped the stakes to $15 million, I just don’t see how the sum of money has any bearing. It sounds like you’re saying “more money” = “less ridicule.”

        I also fail to see why supporting a single charity vs. requiring multiple charities to compete for donations is a superior strategic decision.

        Somehow I doubt that someone like @piglungs (and the wider social media community) would have reacted any differently if Amex had structured its campaign as a contest for more money with more charities. I think the lesson here is much more simple: Be careful making hashtags the center of your social media promotions, because you never know when douchebags might hijack your creation.


      • You’re right about the mistake over the hashtag choice. I think an important lesson from what’s happened here is a fundamental misunderstanding of British culture on the part of AmEx. British people don’t like sharing emotions in public and ‘cheerleading’ – the way we show affection for things is through humour (not humor!) The worst thing you can ask a British person to do is ‘share the love’ – we find open show of affection cringy and embarrassing. Most popular hashtags in the UK tend to be on a comedy theme.

        I think I made my point clearly enough in my blog – the issue with the failure of the campaign is far more to do with equating inspiration & young people with a credit card company than it is about the amounts of money involved.


        A douchebag


      • If you think I was referring to you as a douchebag, you’re wrong, and I apologize for the misunderstanding.

        This American vomits at the concept of cheerleading and sharing the love, so I don’t see the cultural difference between the UK and US you are talking about.

        I think a handful of folks — lead by @piglungs — dislike Amex and saw an opportunity to trash the brand using the company’s own hashtag. Much like computer hackers have a difficult time articulating their motives, I think these folks are aroused by “sticking it to the man” with such irony. It’s a more a “crime of opportunity” exploited by people with juvenile mentalities more than a cosmic social media fail.


  3. Let me close the logic loop here…

    * Banks are greedy, self-serving bastards.
    * Charities are selfless, giving organizations.
    * Social media is about authenticity.
    * Ergo, banks should not support charities because it’s inauthentic, and a bank’s social media initiative should reflect its genuine ugliness.



    • Almost!

      Credit card companies increase people’s debt levels which contributes to poverty. Some charities (such as the Prince’s Trust) help people get out of said poverty. Credit card companies should not make a small donation to a charity and expect the work of the charity to rub off on their own brand – it is this that was transparently inauthentic in the #amexbeinspired campaign.

      I haven’t anywhere in my post implied that banks shouldn’t give to charities at all, my point is that by giving to charity that doesn’t automatically mean that you can associate your brand with that charity’s good works to make your company look good.

      You can’t treat social media in the same way as a normal advertising campaign because you are inviting conversation and issues of authenticity come to the fore in that space. I don’t think anyone would have objected to a social media campaign that was #letsmakemoney or #youngentrepreneurs coming from a bank – that’s what I meant about choosing a campaign that matches the aims and ethos of your company brand.


      • If you think that companies can’t bask in the halo of a charity’s good brand by donating chunks of money, then you really don’t understand the concept of community-based marketing, public relations and corporate giving. That is *precisely* what hundreds of thousands of companies are doing with the billions of dollars they donate. It’s why Nike has a foundation supporting fair-trade and labor (to combat its “sweatshop” image), and why oil companies have programs that support the environment.

        Hey, just admit it. It’s fun to pick on banks. Big American banks. That’s what this is about. A big, bad evil American corporation that got mocked and ridiculed just like a kid on a playground. It’s a form of cyberbullying for adults.


  4. Folks, it’s called a “marketing campaign.” There is nothing more to it. And from the looks of it, with good or bad execution, it’s doing it’s job. Perhaps a different media channel would have worked better. Social Media is not a one size fits all kind of Marketing Outlet. Maybe billboards or magazines would have done better? Who am I kidding: The nerds at Amex enjoy playing with their new technology toys.

    With social media, marketers always risk immediate negative engagement. Perhaps then, social media marketing will evolve as it should. Amex should stick to the really awesome TV ads they have.

    Statistically, it takes 14 positive comments to “overcome” 1 negative comment. Social Media marketers have an uphill climb from the start because most customers who give feedback, are usually the ones that are not happy customers..


  5. I agree with Chip this seems to a be case of any publicity is good publicity for Amex – it makes no difference either way whether the hastag gets trashed.

    Both sides have an axe to grind. Disliking the idea of company that puts people in debt giving to a charity that helps people out of debt seems justified and it’s all occurring against the back drop of deep resentment of banks in which the public perception is that they have laden so much debt on the world that entire countries now face going bankrupt. If all was well with the system and we were all making loads of money I doubt much negative reaction would have occurred. You do have to question the logic of a debt company running a campaign aimed at ‘ordinary folk’ at this point in time. Surely it would make more sense to just target the rich which has always been bread and butter for Amex?

    The method by which the hastag was thrashed is of course childish but the point of such a strategy is to gain attention. It works because we live in a world in which the lowest common denominator is prized. The responsibility for why it is prized must in part lay with advertising and marketing driven media, which is now pervasive, and which seems to have the express goal of being dumb. Perhaps if Amex hadn’t come up with something as vacuous as ‘tell us your inspiration for money’ the negative reaction wouldn’t have been so juvenile? In my opinion most corporations and the advertising they make treat people like fools.

    The Chase thing seems to work better because it doesn’t treat people like children. It’s simple, you identify a charity that you think is important and then vote to send it money. The Amex campaign is patronizing to those with even half a brain. If you treat people like children they’ll act like children.

    Financial Brand has a vested interest in the status quo because he/she makes money dispensing advice on how to make money in that status quo. I think most of the people who hijacked the hastag would rather have something different to the status quo. I don’t really blame them.

    The friction here comes down to Chip’s point – those doing the branding just think of it as another campaign whereas those doing the hating feel it symbolizes some kind of deeper problem with the system. Financial Brand perceives this to be pointless ‘sticking it to man’ because it suits his/her interest to treat such things in a dismissive manner. Maybe you’re right, maybe it is just juvenile but maybe not. You need to be at least open to the possibility that there are a lot of really fucked off people in this county.


    • Thanks, Jame.. it’s not necessarily ” any publicity is good publicity” What I am saying is that Amex didn’t know what they were getting themselves into with this one… They should stick to their outsourcing for Marketing because their TV spots are the best there is.
      Only the competition is climbing up their legs fast, look at Chase Sapphire, etc.. and it’s all due to the Brain Drain Amex suffered when the major heads jumped ship a few years back and took their Corporate Knowledge or “Membership Rewards” programs with them.
      Also, BofA has tons of Affinity cards as a result of their pick up of MBNA. Consequently, do all cards look the same? Which Brand gives the customer the ultimate “experience”?

      Amex could really stay on top if they’d stick to exploiting their advantage: “Membership Rewards” in the Travel Sector.

      I’ve been telling them for years: A social campaign that has people announcing “Which Non-Profit they gave their Points too as donation” would be a better angle. : P Put it on an API and embed that widget in all of the websites you can. Now that’s good publicity using their strong suit.


    • Jame, your summary of The Financial Brand’s mission and motives are completely inaccurate. Your suggestion that the site has a vested interest in “preserving the status quo” makes absolutely no sense. The site makes its money from vendors in the financial industry — not the banks and credit unions themselves — so there is no advantage to protecting the industry’s dominant/current players. Indeed, the site takes at least one bank or credit union to task every week. If you think The Financial Brand doesn’t rock the boat, you haven’t spent any time on the site.

      I spend more time looking at more social media projects from banks and credit unions than just about anyone else on earth. If you choose to dismiss my reflections because you think they reflect a personal or professional bias, then fine. But I’ve seen dozens of charitable campaigns from financial institutions carried out on Twitter, including those using a hashtag at their centerpiece. The only thing that makes this campaign noteworthy is one guy named piglungs.

      I’ve been monitoring #amexbeinspired since it launched. With the exception of the flurry of negativity sparked by piglungs and two blog posts (including this one), the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The vast majority of people are using the hashtag the way it was intended, and without complaint.


      • ooops.. I re-read my post, and yes, I admit it did seem negative on the surface. I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean to reflect negativism. My point is that some forms of advertisement/marketing are open invitations to negative feedback. One can even put spray paint on an outside Billboard, I guess.

        I love Amex. I think they are great. I have always been impressed with their TV spots. Social media, on the other hand, is a different animal that evolves daily.

        I hope they do well with this project.


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