There's nothing worse than a horde of venemous cobras running loose... here's how this relates to your next marketing campaign.

The Cobra Effect – When Your Marketing Backfires!

There’s nothing worse than a horde of venomous cobras. In the late 1800s, loose cobras posed a major threat in British-ruled India. Then the government hit upon a great solution. They began offering a bounty for each dead cobra brought to them.

But instead of heading out to kill snakes, entrepreneurs actually began breeding cobras to take advantage of the bounty! 

Naturally, as soon as the British government heard about this, the bounty was scrapped.

But the story doesn’t end there. Once the cobra breeders discovered that the snakes would no longer fetch them any money, they did the only logical thing – they set them free. This left India with a cobra infestation that was far worse than before.


This is The Cobra Effect in action: it’s when an attempted solution actually makes the problem worse.

It may sound unusual. But in fact, this concept applies to parenting, management, economics (where it’s called “The Law of Unintended Consequences”), and even to public health initiatives.

The Cobra Ate My Lunch

Most people would view “making America’s children healthier” as a positive goal. But when First Lady Michelle Obama set out to make public school lunches healthier, the idea didn’t work out as smoothly as anticipated. In fact, the guidelines that were introduced in 2012 may have actually had the opposite effect.

How? One school dietitian described how the extreme rules made the food so unappetizing that the students refused to eat it. Instead, they would trek to a local dollar store to buy ice cream for lunch.

Students also took to Twitter, posting pictures of the “yucky” and “gross” offerings in the lunchroom along with the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama. Up to 60% of the vegetables and 40% of the fruits provided for school lunches were thrown away, uneaten. One Kansas school put out a viral music parody video that complained that active students no longer received enough food to excel in sports or even stay alert in class.

What the Cobra Effect Means for Marketing

Many businesses have experienced The Cobra Effect when their well-intentioned marketing campaigns backfired horribly.  The saddest part is that the consequences could have been avoided with a little bit of planning.

Here are a few examples all business owners should study:

  • Drug companies often use direct-to-consumer ads. But in some cases, these ads may actually lose patients already taking the medication, rather than attracting new patients! For example, some patients who had already been prescribed statins, which lower cholesterol, decided to stop taking them after seeing the ads. Why? Liver damage, listed as a possible side effect at the end of the commercial, scared them away.
  • The Australian airline Qantas experienced The Cobra Effect with a vengeance when they launched a Twitter campaign encouraging flyers to tweet about positive experiences on their airline. Unfortunately, the marketing campaign blew up their faces when flyers started tweeting about their flight horror stories instead.
  • Price skimming, the technique of lowering the price of an item over time, seems like a great way to receive the highest price that each customer is willing to pay for the item. At least, that’s the way an economist might see it. The Cobra Effect creeps up here when customers who bought the item at the higher price feel cheated when they see the subsequent, lower prices. The unhappy outcome is that your best customers become less likely to buy anything from you ever again.
  • In 2007, Turner Broadcasting decided to launch an outdoor marketing campaign for the animated show “Aqua Team Hunger Force.” They built light-up boards and hung them throughout several large American cities. The Boston police suspected the anonymous “packages” were bombs planted by terrorists, and mobilized local and federal law enforcement to deal with the threat. This led to the shutdown of major Boston roadways, and ended with the arrest of the people responsible for the marketing campaign, charged with placing, transferring, or possessing a host device that “results in panic.”

Cobra Antivenom

Now for the best part — how to avoid bringing the Cobra Effect upon yourself. As a business owner, what can you do to make sure your own marketing ideas don’t backfire horribly?

The answer is surprisingly simple. You can save yourself countless problems just by asking two questions before your launch any new campaign.  These questions are What if…? and What about…?

  • What if…? questions look at alternate scenarios.
  • What about…? questions look at other groups of people.

These questions uncover problems before they arise and allow you to make modifications (or yank the campaign altogether, if necessary). Let’s look at the examples above and see how these two simple questions could have spared the companies involved from tremendous damage to their brands.

    • Pharmaceutical ads. The drug companies were targeting new consumers with their ads, but they never asked themselves What about…. patients already taking statins who will see the warnings about liver damage?
    • The Qantas Twitter disaster. The airline was hoping for delighted tweets from passengers who wanted to tweet about their great experiences. But they could have avoided a PR nightmare if they had asked What if… passengers who are angry at us use the new hashtag to publicize their complaints?
    • Price skimming. When companies begin lowering the price, it’s to entice less-loyal buyers who haven’t been motivated to buy yet at a higher price. The Cobra Effect can be avoided by asking What about… our best, most loyal customers who bought the product immediately, and now see it offered for much less?
    • The Boston Terrorist Scare. The company was hoping that the light-up boards would be a great publicity stunt. They could have avoided causing a city-wide ruckus if they had asked What if…people are afraid of strange objects being left in public spaces, especially after 9/11?

What about…? and What if…? are straightforward questions, but taking the time to ask these questions can avoid unpleasant consequences for your company.

As a business owner, it’s natural to get excited about your marketing ideas. But it’s worth pausing to ask these questions.

Because you’d hate to be bitten by a cobra, wouldn’t you?