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Fanning the flames: understanding viral content after brand transgressions

Kimberly V. Legocki (Department of Marketing, Saint Mary’s College of California, Moraga, California, USA)
Kristen L. Walker (Department of Marketing, California State University Northridge, Northridge, California, USA)
Meike Eilert (Department of Marketing, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA)

Journal of Consumer Marketing

ISSN: 0736-3761

Article publication date: 6 June 2022

Issue publication date: 25 July 2022




This paper aims to contribute to the emerging body of research on firestorms, specifically on the inflammatory user-generated content (UGC) created in response to brand transgressions. By analyzing and segmenting UGC created and shared in the wake of three different events, the authors identify which type of inflammatory message is most likely to be widely shared; thus, contributing to a possible online firestorm.


Tweets were collected involving brand transgressions in the retail, fast food and technology space from varying timeframe and diverse media coverage. Then, the tweets were coded for message intention and analyzed with linguistics software to determine the message characteristics and framing. A two-step cluster analysis identified three types of UGC.


The authors found that message dimensions and the framing of tweets in the context of brand transgressions differed in characteristics, sentiment, call to action and the extent to which the messages were shared. The findings contradict traditional negative word-of-mouth studies involving idiosyncratic service and product failure. During online brand firestorms, rational activism messages with a call to action, generated in response to a firm’s transgression or “sparks,” have a higher likelihood of being shared (virality).


This research provides novel insights into UGC created after brand transgressions. Different types of messages created after these events vary in the extent that they “fan the flames” of the transgression. A message typology and flowchart are provided to assist managers in identifying and responding to three message types: ash, sparks and embers.



The authors thank the helpful and constructive feedback from the JCM review team, which led to an improved manuscript.

Funding: The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


Legocki, K.V., Walker, K.L. and Eilert, M. (2022), "Fanning the flames: understanding viral content after brand transgressions", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 39 No. 5, pp. 460-474.



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