'Not a 10' tweet: Cautionary tale of how brands' messages can go wrong

The US State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs often posts messages offering prospective travelers advice. But one tweet Wednesday that rated physical attractiveness prompted a backlash and an apology.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters/File
A 3D-printed logo for Twitter is seen in this picture illustration made in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina on January 26. The State Department found itself facing a backlash on Wednesday after a tweet it sound out giving travel advice referenced rating travelers' physical attractiveness.

It hasn’t been a good week for brands and government agencies trying to seem young and hip on Twitter.

Just days after Microsoft pulled its Tay chatbot for spewing out a stream of racist and anti-Semitic messages, the US State Department found itself in a similar kerfuffle on Wednesday over a tweet that made reference to rating travelers’ physical attractiveness.

The State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs often sends out travel tips and advisories for Americans going abroad. But on Wednesday, one tweet read:

“Not a ’10’ in the US? Then not a 10 overseas. Beware of being lured into buying expensive drinks or worse — being robbed. #springbreakingbadly.”

(It has since been deleted).

But the department’s attempt at humor quickly drew a backlash, with many users on the social network deeming the tweet sexist and leading to a parody account mocking the State Department.

But the Bureau of Consular Affairs at first responded with a second attempt at the same theme that also prompted derision, this time referencing drug smuggling.

“Somebody offered you a free trip abroad, but the free luggage they offered is lined with cocaine. Beware of these scams #springbreakingbadly,” the State Department tweeted.

The incident mirrored a similar series of responses by the Oxford English Dictionary’s Twitter account, which had initially mocked a user’s concern that the dictionary’s example sentence for the word “rabid” which used the phrase “rabid feminist.”

An official from the publisher later apologized for the response. The phrase “was a poorly chosen example in that the controversial and impolitic nature of the example distracted from the dictionary’s aim of describing and clarifying meaning,” wrote Katherine Connor-Martin, head of content creation at the publisher, in a blog post.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s frequent use of Twitter – including a series of messages he has retweeted – have also drawn similar controversy and questions about whether some of his comments are misogynistic and racist.

The tone of many of his tweets has also inspired an MIT computer scientist to create a parody account, @DeepDrumpf, manned by a computer that has “learned” to tweet in Mr. Trump’s style through a training process. Some have also speculated that he doesn’t write many of his own tweets.

By Wednesday evening, the State Department’s account had recanted its earlier message and attempted to explain the original intent.

The balance between communicating in a way that engages a broad group of users online and avoiding missteps can be tricky, some say.

“When you try to be extra effective on social media and nab people’s attention, you can sometimes cross the line,” Gabe Saglie, the senior editor of Travelzoo, told the BBC.

“It’s a reminder for travel companies and government agencies," he added, "you have to be aware of your audience before you send a message."

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