Sometimes a thing goes so spectacularly wrong that you can’t look away. It’s so sad, pathetic, foolish, poorly-managed or incredibly screwed up that you (and millions of others) just have to keep watching because at least it’s not your problem. It’s someone else’s.
While some might argue that all of 2019 was a trainwreck, there were a few specific disasters that truly captured viral infamy. These situations were so ridiculous that they became a part of pop culture on a national or international scale.
Some were the epitome of schadenfreude — that special German word for taking pleasure in the misfortune of others — while others were just plain sad, as humans pushed limits that really should not have been pushed.
READ MORE: The best viral moments of 2019
As you head into 2020, feel free to pat yourself on the back. You didn’t screw up this badly. You’re still here — and there’s still time to make next year’s list.
Gender reveal disasters
Whatever happened to simply saying “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl”?
Overly enthusiastic parents got themselves into heaps of trouble this year by staging elaborate and dangerous gender-reveal stunts — all in the service of telling friends and family about their baby-to-be’s genitals. They obviously didn’t learn from the Arizona man who sparked a wildfire and caused US$8 million in damage with his explosive gender reveal in 2017.
An Australian gender reveal flamed out in spectacular fashion over the summer, when a vehicle caught fire while burning out its tires to give off blue smoke. Police released the video in hopes of cutting down on gender-reveal burnouts, which have somehow become a thing Down Under.
The trend reached new and tragic heights later in the year. First, a small plane crashed in Texas while trying to dump 350 gallons of pink water for a gender reveal. One month later, an expectant grandmother was killed by debris created by a gender-reveal explosion gone wrong.
That first gender-reveal death happened just a few months after mommy blogger Jenna Karvunidis distanced herself from the trend she helped launch. Karvunidis said she regrets popularizing the gender reveal because “we didn’t live in 2019 and didn’t know what we know now — that assigning focus on gender at birth leaves out so much of their potential and talents that have nothing to do with what’s between their legs.”
She added: “Who cares what gender the baby is?”
The Storm Area 51 event started as a Facebook joke based on a very simple premise: If everyone simply swarmed the secretive government facility, perhaps a few people would get in. It was a brilliantly ridiculous plan that attracted millions of tongue-in-cheek supporters on Facebook. It also spawned hundreds of truly spectacular memes that you can find in our Best Viral Moments of 2019.
The slow-motion disaster started when the event’s founder, Matty Roberts, decided to turn his viral Facebook event into a real-world concert for alien enthusiasts in Rachel, Nev., a community of fewer than 60 people close to Area 51.
Roberts teamed up with Connie West, owner of Rachel’s Little A’Le’Inn, to put on Alienstock from Sept. 19-22. They racked up sponsors, sold off camping space and reached out to bands for the event.
However, the whole thing started to unravel at the beginning of September. Rachel residents warned alien-lovers to stay out of their town, Roberts and West started feuding over money and two rival alien-themed music festivals sprang up to compete with Alienstock.
Roberts ultimately bailed on Alienstock, calling it a “potential humanitarian disaster in the works” before joining with one of the rival concerts to host a separate event in Las Vegas.
“There’s been a lot of headlines saying that I pulled out for safety concerns, which — I really respect that headline a lot because it’s exactly what I had said,” Roberts told Fox News on the eve of Alienstock.
West responded with a tearful interview in which she assured people that the concert would still happen — if only because her life savings relied upon it.
“I put my house up to pay for things,” she said.
More than 2 million people originally pledged to storm Area 51. Of that number, only about 3,000 actually showed up in the desert, and only 1,000 visited the gates of Area 51, officials said afterward.
Nevertheless, the incident yielded some truly viral moments, including one video of a man performing a “Naruto run” behind a TV reporter during a live hit from Alienstock.
A smattering of people showed up outside Area 51 at the original date and time of the pre-dawn “attack” that inspired it all. However, the results were less than spectacular. A few people were arrested for breaching the gate and one was apprehended for public urination.
They did stop all of us, in the end.
Roxodus music fest collapses
The Roxodus music festival was supposed to be something special. World-renowned acts including Aerosmith, Kid Rock, Nickelback and Lynyrd Skynyrd were supposed to show up at a rural concert venue outside Barrie, Ont., for a major festival in mid-July.
Instead, the whole thing collapsed into chaos. Organizer MF Live Inc. cancelled the festival on July 3, just eight days before it was supposed to happen. The company initially blamed “rainy weather” and venue concerns, but the real reason soon came into focus: they were having money issues.
The heads of the company started pointing fingers at one another, while angry ticketholders demanded their money back.
MF Live Inc. filed for bankruptcy on July 16, citing a debt of more than $18 million.
Angry observers eventually condemned Roxodus as Canada’s version of Fyre Festival — an overly hyped music festival that completely blew up in organizers’ faces.
So, who wants to make the documentary?
The end of Game of Thrones
HBO’s Game of Thrones became a cornerstone of pop culture over the last decade through smart writing, unexpected turns, well-crafted cinematography, superb acting and a whole lot of sex and violence. It also spawned hundreds of fan theories based on one question: “Who will sit on the Iron Throne in the end?”
The series finally answered that question this year, and it was … not a great answer. Looking back, the enduring legacy of Game of Thrones might be how abruptly its fans turned on it in the final season.
GoT became a viral target throughout its eighth season due to lazy writing, dumb production mistakes and a climactic battle that was nearly impossible to watch for some viewers because it was just too darn dark. Thousands signed a petition demanding the season be remade, while many others called for showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff to be barred from working on Star Wars. The duo ultimately walked away from Star Wars of their own accord due to a deal with Netflix.
All the fan rage aside, the biggest viral disaster of GoT might have been the coffee cup.
Eagle-eyed fans were quick to point out a Starbucks cup sitting on a table at Winterfell in Episode 4, prompting a tide of mockery on social media last May.
“You’re telling me they had TWO YEARS to put together a decent show and they couldn’t even spot the goddamn Starbucks cup in Winterfell??!?!” one person tweeted.
Yes. The answer is yes.
Adults feeling threatened by Greta Thunberg
Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg became a champion for her generation and the planet’s future this year. She led student climate strikes around the globe, scolded world leaders at the United Nations and earned Time magazine’s coveted Person of the Year award.
That was the accomplishment.
The disaster was the parade of far-right leaders, pundits and conspiracy theorists who attacked the 16-year-old in an attempt to discredit her simple message. Nevertheless, that message remains true: climate change is real, and the proof is in the science.
Thunberg has become a popular target for members of the right, particularly as her popularity has grown. U.S. President Donald Trump attacked her — twice — on social media, once after the UN summit and again after she won the Time honour. People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier also went after her on Twitter, calling her “mentally unstable” in an apparent nod to her Asperger’s syndrome.
Critics accused her of taking a “cruise” when she opted to sail across the ocean to her UN appearance, rather than taking a carbon-emitting plane. They claimed she was a “mentally ill” puppet and compared her to Adolf Hitler. They even concocted some (mostly) tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theories about a photo lookalike of her from 1898.
Counter-protesters have also shown up to denounce her at some of her climate strike demonstrations, including on multiple occasions while she was passing through oil-rich Alberta in October.
Australian comedian Mark Humphries poked fun at Thunberg’s haters with a satirical video published in September, which showed a fake hotline for adults “angry at a child.”
“If you’re a grown adult who needs to yell at a child for some reason, the Greta Thunberg Helpline is here to tolerate you,” a woman’s voiceover says in the video.
Peloton bike ad
The ad shows a woman slavishly documenting one year of working out on a Peloton bike that her husband gave her at Christmas, before presenting him with a video about her efforts the following year.
“A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me,” she says in the vlog. “Thank you.”
Peloton clearly set out to present the bike as a positive, life-changing gift, but online critics took the ad in a completely different direction. Many pointed out that the woman in the ad looks low-key terrified, as though she’s plastering a smile on her face to avoid crying.
“I don’t understand why she is so frightened the whole time,” one person said.
“Nothing says ‘maybe you should lose a few pounds’ like gifting your already rail-thin life partner a Peloton,’” added another user.
Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds quickly jumped on the viral moment to promote his Aviation Gin company. Reynolds hired the Peloton actress, Monica Ruiz, to appear in a backdoor “sequel” to the first ad. The ad showed Ruiz sitting between two friends who comfort her and tell her everything will be OK, while she quickly chugs a martini glass full of gin.
Ruiz later addressed her viral fame in a self-deprecating interview with Today.
“It was my face, that was the problem,” she said. “My eyebrows looked, like, worried, I guess?”
Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface
Justin Trudeau wore skin-darkening makeup multiple times before he became prime minister of Canada. And there are real, cringe-inducing photos to prove it.
This political bomb hit right in the middle of the Canadian federal election, but it quickly became a viral trainwreck for people around the world. It actually broke in the foreign press, as Time magazine was the first one with the story.
It all started with a 2001 yearbook photo of then-teacher Trudeau in an Aladdin costume, with his face covered in makeup that made him look much darker than even the Disney character. That prompted Trudeau to apologize in a press conference on his jet, where he acknowledged that he’s always been “more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate.” He also said he didn’t know exactly how many other times he’d worn blackface.
Soon after, Global News obtained footage of a younger Trudeau with his skin painted black at a campground. A third photo also surfaced of Trudeau in blackface for an on-stage performance in high school.
The story didn’t cost Trudeau the election, but it did damage his global image as a progressive leader. It also spawned some pretty wild memes online.
The controversy generated plenty of ammunition for Trudeau’s critics, who still dredge it up in response to race- or gender-related issues.
Read the comments section on any Trudeau-related news story and you’re bound to read something like: “Yeah but he does brownface!”
Trudeau opted to skip his annual Halloween dress-up tradition this year. Obviously.