We all make mistakes. But when a mistake is on paper, a billboard, on TV, or worst of all, when it winds up on the internet… a marketing faux pas can be seriously damaging. As a writer who specializes in marketing, I am painfully aware of the challenges faced by brands this day and age.
Most of us hate advertising, and, due to infamous amounts of screen time, are constantly bombarded by marketing messages to the point that we consider them to be white noise. Aside from being under pressure to create a memorable piece of marketing, there’s a fine line between “catchy & fun” and “seriously offensive”. By far, the most intimidating aspect of marketing these days is that we are all so unforgiving.
At the same time, it’s pretty baffling when a unmistakably awful, cringe-worthy, and/or hideously offensive piece of marketing can slip past the countless people that look over it. Between the ad agency that came up with the piece and the brand’s own internal marketing team, someone must have noticed that something was… off.
So, if you are reading this and you’re involved in any sort of marketing – whether you’re with the brand or on the creative team – pay attention!  Speak up if something doesn’t seem quite right. Otherwise, one mistake and you’ll find yourself getting trolled on social media faster than you can say “our brand is on fleek”. Just kidding. Don’t say that.
With that in mind, here’s a list of some of the gnarliest marketing fails of all time. Cringe at them, laugh at them, learn from them, and most importantly, never, ever repeat them.
In no particular order…

Fail #1: Apple & U2 | The Forced Download

It was the fall of 2014. Apple announced that it would give 500 million iTunes customers U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence, for free, by auto-downloading it to their libraries. Apple CEO Tim Cook marketed it as “the largest album release of all time”. The problem is that 499,000,000 iTunes customers didn’t want it – (disclaimer: we’re just ballparking… that number may not be exact) – and what may have sounded like a good cross-promotional stunt in Apple’s marketing meetings quickly exploded into mayhem when the album began appearing unannounced on customers’ devices.  Bono later apologized for the forced freebie, saying “I’m sorry about that. I had this beautiful idea and we got carried away with ourselves”.

Fail #2 Pepsi | The Bad Joke


In 1996, Pepsi ran a new promotional campaign. The slogan of this campaign was “Drink Pepsi – Get Stuff.” It was simple. Buy Pepsi products, collect points from Pepsi labels and claim prizes like t-shirts, sunglasses, leather jackets, or – for 7 million points – a Harrier Jet. John Leonard, a 21-year-old business student at the time, saw the televised commercial for the promotion and made up his mind that he would go after a prize. And no, it wasn’t a t-shirt. After doing a little research, Leonard noticed some fine print: In place of labels, consumers could buy Pepsi points for ten cents each. He did the math and quickly figured out that it’d take him $700,000 to buy the Pepsi points he needed for the AV-8 Harrier II Jump Jet (valued at $33.8 million at the time).
Leonard then convinced a handful of investors to give him the funds, he sent Pepsi a check, and he waited for his jet. It never came. Leonard took Pepsi to court, but eventually the lawsuit went flat.  The court sided with Pepsi and ruled that, “no objective person could reasonably have concluded that the commercial actually offered consumers a Harrier Jet”.
In the end, Pepsi it updated its commercial by raising the number of points needed for the jet from 7 million to 700 million, and that was that.

Fail #3 | Pepsi’s Bad Taste

Speaking of Pepsi, the 2017 Pepsi ad featuring reality TV star/supermodel Kendall Jenner left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. It was about unity, Pepsi explained. But the company’s ad, set at a protest march, was quickly called out for being tone-deaf and offensive.
Pepsi initially stood by the ad, which was created by their own in-house creative team Creators League Studio, stating: “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey.”
But, their loyalty didn’t last long- and the ad was pulled within days. The soda company was getting backlash on social media and across the internet – particularly for the scene in which Jenner hands a policeman a can of Pepsi. This is how Elle Magazine eloquently put it: “The commercial co-opts protest as something new and trendy (We’re woke too! Resistance is lit! Buy Pepsi!), rather than a dangerous necessity. This scene, which invokes a now iconic photo of Black Lives Matter protester Ieshia Evans being arrested in front of police line in Baton Rouge—but instead places a white, rich, supermodel in the focus, feels particularly egregious.”  
While the notorious ad didn’t make anyone thirsty, it did become a textbook example of what not to do in marketing.

Fail #4 | A Pure PR Nightmare

Just days after the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner ad was released in the spring of 2017, the German skincare company Nivea had a serious “what were they thinking” moment of their own. Nivea promoted a deodorant ad that declared “WHITE IS PURITY”. The ad appeared in a Facebook post that was originally targeted the company’s followers in the Middle East. It was intended to promote Nivea’s “Invisible for Black and White” deodorant, a stain-free antiperspirant meant for use with black or white clothing. The caption on the Facebook post read: “Keep it clean, keep bright. Don’t let anything ruin it, #Invisible.”
The ad was pulled after people called the slogan racist – and after the ad’s comment section was hijacked by white supremacists.

This isn’t the first time Nivea has caused controversy with their insensitive marketing. In 2011, an ad for Nivea for Men products caused widespread outrage for depicting a clean-shaven black man tossing a dummy head with an Afro with a beard. The ad read, “Look like you give a damn … RE-CIVILIZE YOURSELF”.

Fail #5| Overconfidence Is Dangerous

In an effort to prove that LifeLock’s identity protection system works, the company ran a radical marketing campaign in 2006 featuring CEO Todd Davis, in which Davis boldly plastered his Social Security number all over internet ads, trucks, billboards, and television commercials. The slogan of the ads was “LifeLock will make your personal information useless to a criminal”.
Customers pay $10 to $15 a month for the supposed protection – and for LifeLock’s “$1 million guarantee” if the protection fails. Well, thieves must have mistaken the campaign as an invitation. Since it ran, Davis has been a victim of identity theft at least 13 times, according to the Phoenix New Times.
Fast forward to 2010. LifeLock was slammed with $12 million in fines by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising and for failing to secure customer data. Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, said “In truth, the protection they provided left such a large hole … that you could drive that truck through it,” referring to a Lifelock TV ad in which a truck painted with Todd Davis’ Social Security number is shown driving around town.

Fail #6 | ‘Tis the season to…

…Be more careful with your holiday ads. The New York department store Bloomingdale’s came under fire in 2015 when an ad – published in their holiday catalogue – was interpreted by some of encouraging date rape.
The ad features an oblivious young woman being eyeballed by young man/creeper, with the caption “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking”. The ad was instantly blasted on social media.
Bloomingdale’s apologized for the ad, saying in a statement: “In reflection of recent feedback, the copy we used in our current catalog was inappropriate and in poor taste. Bloomingdale’s sincerely apologizes for this error in judgment”.  

Fail #7 | Sex doesn’t always sell

Welcome to Miami. For years, Estrella Insurance has notoriously plastered the city with racy images of women in an effort to sell auto insurance. But in 2017, the company went a little too far with one of their advertisements. The ads not only loomed on highway billboards, they were also printed on the sides of Miami-Dade Transit buses. The ads featured a woman named “Money”, who was depicted wearing a short green dress and was bound to a chair while pleading, “Saaave me!”.
Billboards are one thing, but just how did these ads wind up on public buses? Miami-Dade Transit Director Alice Bravo claimed that the department had little control over its content. But, after major public outrage over the ads – which many claimed objectified women – the department changed their tune and the ads were soon removed.

The “Money” ad was the just the latest in the provocative series of ads by the insurance company, which also included the image of a woman’s legs with her jean shorts around her ankles – with the slogan “No one drops them like we do”.

Published by Merilyn Ritchie

Merilyn Ritchie is a co-founder and Senior Marketing Strategist at EX Media, where she helps clients of all sizes achieve their marketing goals. She's a skilled craftsperson of top-notch strategies and content, with a proven track record of success in a variety of industries, including small businesses, large non-profits, and tech startups. When she's not conjuring marketing magic, Merilyn can be found in the garden or with her nose buried in a book, fueling her passion for the written word. While she loathes talking about herself in the third person, she's been persuaded to do so from time to time. So it goes. You can catch her latest musings and insights by following her on Instagram at @merilynmcg.