Marketers are daring beings.
We’re constantly trying to come up with something ground-breaking, but there are a thousand things that can go horribly wrong in that pursuit.
Maybe nobody gets the message.
Maybe a certain group gets offended & rallies on Twitter for a public boycott of your products.
Maybe the campaign has the opposite effect of what you intended. Or maybe you never did your research so you kind of deserve it?
We all learn from our mistakes & failures. Only sometimes they’re expensive. Some even end up permanently damaging the brand’s reputation permanently.
So the only two steps we can realistically take is exercise more caution and take cues from the legendary mistakes of our peers.
On that note, here’s a list of the worst marketing fails of all time (Warning: Some may leave you in splits).
Mountain Dew’s Chugger
Localization is crucial in today’s globalized world.
But before you launch generic ads in any region (other than your target market), you need to get the translation right.
This requires a basic understanding of the local culture, traditions, religious sentiments, language/slang, individual customer behaviors, etc.
If you’re not an expert, the least you can do is run it through the end consumers in that region, and use feedback from the surveys to craft more targeted & appealing pieces.
If caution is not taken, the whole campaign can be horribly misunderstood.
Mountain Dew learned this the hard way.
The brand’s UK branch tweeted an ad featuring a man chugging down their drink. The copy read, “Epic thrills start with a chug.” The tweet said, “We didn’t choose the chug life. The chug life chose us.”
Seems harmless, right?
Except “chug” is Scottish slang for masturbation. And the Scots didn’t hold back when it was their chance to troll.
The 2018 tweet was promptly deleted before the world could take notice.
Rest assured, when the UK or Scottish marketing teams of the brand run a campaign next time, they’ll definitely run it by the locals.
Pepsi for BLM
This one needs no introduction.
In 2017, Pepsi thought it would be a brilliant idea to put their drink right at the center of a sociopolitical movement called “Black Lives Matter,” demanding fairer rights for African Americans in the States.
The Pepsi ad featured model Kendal Jenner, walking into a BLM protest & handing over a bottle to a cop, who changed his stance after taking a sip.
The ad makes the serious protest look like a party parade.
Immediately upon the release, it sparked outrage across the world for misusing & trivializing such a sensitive issue. It was ignorant, tone deaf, and almost feels like a dark parody.
The brand’s motive was to promote peace & harmony, but it had the opposite effect.
Pepsi killed the ad within 24 hours & issued a formal apology.
Marketers should almost never use a controversial issue or social problem to promote their products. It comes off as greedy & insensitive.
Pepsi could’ve received a positive response if it actually did something practical to help the BLM movement rather than dramatizing it.
For example, when Hurricane Harvey left many people homeless in 2017, Anheuser-Busch, the company that makes Budweiser Beer, turned one of its plants into a makeshift water producing factory, and distributed 155,000 cans of drinking water to victims in need.
That’s how brands can really champion a social cause & still manage to win their customers hearts in the right way.
The New Coke
Who doesn’t love to try out something new?
Well, Coke customers for a start.
On April 23, 1985, the Coca-Cola Company announced it was changing the formula for the world’s most popular soft drink, dubbing the new formulation as “The New Coke.”
This change was the result of taste tests performed on 200,000 customers, who preferred the newly invented version.
However, what the researchers in Coca-Cola’s R&D department didn’t take into account was the legacy built by the brand in the past decades.
Customers had an emotional attachment to the Classic Coca-Cola, and they weren’t comfortable with any replacement. They didn’t want anyone tampering with the good ol’ favorite, which was predictable & consistent.
A man in San Antonio, Texas, drove to a local bottler and bought $1,000 worth of the old Coca-Cola cans as he feared they’d go out of stock.
Their was a huge backlash, and even a public petition to bring back the old formula.
It got so bad, that the brand had to cave in, returning things to normal in just a few months.
Of course, one can’t deny the free publicity the brand got out of it – every media outlet in the world was reporting the story, and it has been deemed as the “biggest marketing blunder of the century.“
This has a similar ring to how customers outright rejected the new GAP logo unveiled in 2010, forcing the brand to go back to the original.
Stories like these should act as warnings for marketing managers at big brands who want to change things just for the sake of it.
Maybe your customers have an emotional attachment to the old & traditional product, so playing with its legacy elements can have a counterintuitive effect.
New isn’t always good.
Airbnb’s Floating World Email
On August 28 (Monday), the online rental booking platform Airbnb sent an email with the theme “Floating homes, waterfall slides, & more reasons to travel.”
It featured water-themed homes & attractions for travelers to plan their trips around. One of the sub-headings read, “Stay above water,” followed by “Live the life aquatic with these floating homes.”
The only problem?
Around the same time, Hurricane Harvey was destroying lives around the country, leaving 9 people dead & 300,000 stranded in shelters.
So obviously such an email couldn’t have come at a worse time, and it was quick to draw ire on Twitter.
“The timing of this email marketing campaign was insensitive and we apologize for that,” said the spokesperson Christopher Nulty. “We continue to keep everyone affected by Harvey and all the first responders and their families in our thoughts.”
Hey, @Airbnb @AirbnbHelp -“Floating homes, waterfall slides, & more reasons to travel” maybe not best email to send to Texas this morning pic.twitter.com/5NvID4H2nt— jesuisfortythreeemptyfolders (@jenniferinc) August 26, 2017
What this fail teaches us is that before pushing out any major communication assets, its wise to do a daily morning survey of events occurring around the globe.
Avoiding the checks can cause your message to be misunderstood as an attempt to piggyback on events you had no intentions of covering or referencing – in fact, you probably aren’t even aware of them.
The brand has made amends since then, and actively worked on a “disaster response” program, which it typically activates after natural disasters or other catastrophic events, connecting displaced victims & emergency relief workers with local Airbnb hosts who volunteer to list their home accommodations for free.
BK’s Women’s Day Tweet
Burger King is known for its cheeky campaigns, many of which troll their competitor McDonald’s.
But in 2021, one of their “intended-to-be-witty” tweets missed the mark. On the occasion of Women’s Day (8th March), their handle tweeted, “Women belong in the kitchen.”
Obviously that’s not all of it.
The first line was intended to be a hook, followed by a clarification. But what BK didn’t anticipate is that most people didn’t open up the full thread to read the following tweets.
They just read the first line, got offended by it, and blasted the brand for being outright sexist, a big no-no in this day & age.
What it teaches us is that being woke for the sake of it can backfire if people don’t clearly get your message in one go.
Being aware of how a social platform’s UI/UX works is important – BK never considered that people would actually have to scroll down or click the thread to read more.
Of course, the fuming mob left the brand no option, so it soon deleted the thread & issued an apology.
Next time you feel the urge of hopping on a social movement like Women’s Rights, LGBTQIA+ rights (during Pride month), or Black Lives Matter, try to exercise restraint because it may not even be relevant to your brand’s TG.
It won’t even make sense if you’ve not done anything practical to help the cause.
But if you must say something, don’t say anything that’s too smart for your own good. People get offended by smart things. Keep your message clear, simple, and positive.
Bud Light’s “No” Removal
Beer brands depend on cheeky advertising to reach their male-dominated TG.
In 2015, Bud Light ran its second “Up For Whatever” campaign with (what were supposed to be) upbeat positive phrases, invoking memories of a carefree, spontaneous, fun night out with friends.
One of its lines caught the public’s attention, “The perfect beer for removing “no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”
It was alluding that getting women drunk would enable men to make their sexual advances, essentially promoting rape culture.
This came at a time when advocates for women’s safety were rallying with their “No Means No” slogan that called for proper consent to sex from both sides.
An image of a beer bottle labeled with the tonedeaf line was first posted on Reddit on April 28th, and was picked up by Consumerist soon after. Of course, people on socials went ablaze, bashing the company’s unintended message.
Budlight’s VP, Alexander Lambrecht, apologized through a statement posted on the parent company Anheuser-Busch’s website.
The takeaway here is to not go overboard with your cheekiness, which can cause you to overlook certain social customs & movements.
Always run your taglines through 10-15 members in your TG, and ask them if there’s anything they find uncomfortable or offensive.
Just because your internal marketing team thinks its funny, doesn’t mean it’ll be taken that way by the end consumers, too.
In fact, to avoid becoming a target of cancel culture on social media, here’s a list of offensiveness checks you should do before publishing any piece of communication online.
If the answer is “Yes” or “Maybe/Possibly” to any of the questions, please reconsider the idea.
Note that even after these 20 checks (thanks to woke slacktivists on social media), its still possible to get hate, but at least you’ve done your due diligence so you’ll have some basis to respond to the comments.
|1||Women||Does this promote inequality, harassment, stereotypes, rape culture, or sexism?|
|2||LGBT||Does this take a dig at minor sexualities or genders?|
|3||Race||Is this making use of anyone’s color, physical features, ethnicity, or country of origin?|
|4||Religion||Is this shaming, mocking, or using a religious icon, symbol, norm, or tradition?|
|5||Class||Is this making fun of poor/middle class people or trivializing their struggles?|
|6||Age||Is this shaming an age-group related behavior? (Gen Z, older people)|
|7||Harm||Is this normalizing self-harm, suicide, injury?|
|8||Historic||Does this make references to the Holocaust, slavery, genocide, or colonialism?|
|9||Disease||Does this shun or corner people living with a certain physical or mental condition?|
|10||Disability||Is this mocking, parodying, or trivializing people with mental/physical disabilities?|
|11||Mental||Does this normalize or romanticize depression, ADHD, anxiety, or any mental health issue?|
|12||Unjust||Does this validate overworking (hustling), stress, bad management, abuse, or exploitation?|
|13||Violence||Does this promote violence or confrontation in any form?|
|14||Animals||Does this involve any misuse of animals or forced performance for social media likes?|
|15||Planet||Does this harm/disturb the environment, natural beauty, and Earth’s resources?|
|16||Green||Does this create more waste or air, water, sound, soil, or food pollution?|
|17||Kids||Is this safe for kids? If not, does it come with warnings?|
|18||Safety||Is this authorized by food or medical authorities? If not, is that clarified clearly?|
|19||Finance||Does this encourage gambling, betting, corruption, or any get-rich-quick scheme?|
|20||Risks||Are the risks or issues with your product clearly explained?|
The Bud Light story also reminds me of Bloomingdale’s 2015 Christmas print ad blatantly promoting date rape through the copy “Spike your closest friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.”
UGH, so disgusting.
Seriously, what are brands thinking when they publish this shit!?
Vim Black Dish Soap for Men
In December 2022, Hindustan Unilever’s India division created a campaign with their agency MullenLowe Lintas. This was for their Vim Dish Soap brand. They made a rather daring attempt to break the gender stereotype of dishwashing being an activity only reserved for women.
To do that, they tied up with athlete-cum-influencer Milind Soman for promoting “Vim Black,” a limited-edition pack that was intended to be appealing for men with its macho black colors. Mind you, there is no such “Vim Black” product available in the market – it’s just sarcasm.
Their ad is set in a gym, where we see a guy bragging about helping his mother with the dishes, as if he’s done some great deed.
At this point, Milind Soman appears with a bottle of Vim Black in his hand telling the man that he can brag as much as he wants if he starts using this new limited-edition product.
It was intended to be “tongue-in-cheek” sarcasm, prompting men to brag as much as they want to if they simply help out their partners in the house. But the extreme level of sarcasm is precisely why many of the viewers didn’t get it.
To the normal person, the message comes off differently.
It feels as though they’re saying that when men help out in domestic chores, it should be considered as a privilege being bestowed upon women.
Furthermore, what many people took offense with is that this ad actually reinforces another stereotype about men only caring to buy products if they look macho, black, or blue.
So is yellow Vim not attractive enough for boys to take up house chores? Do we have to create an unnecessary spinoff for the sake of a campaign?
This is something the boys in the agency clearly did not think of! I don’t think they ran it through test audiences either because someone must’ve surely caught the obvious irony & faux pas.
Years ago, P&G ran a #ShareTheLoad ad which was very direct in its approach.
It simply showed a man admitting to not helping out his daughter-in-law & pledging to use Ariel to do the laundry for her. In that, there was no looking down on men or mocking them – it simply asked them to take a step in a better direction.
Secondly, and more importantly, the copywriting in the Soman ad is actually the main culprit!
The whole spot lasts for 00:20 seconds, and doesn’t have any funny gags as such, so it carries the arrogant & “holier-than-thou tone” of the #YourLoss campaign done by Sleepy Owl Coffee. That ad was also criticized for being too rude to its fans.
So when you’re writing an ad that makes fun of some group or person, think deeply about how that person will receive it. Does the ad have enough charm & witty humor that’ll make them laugh at themselves & become convinced to take action?
Or does it target them only for the sake of targeting them? Don’t get me wrong – people love being the butt of the joke. They just don’t want to feel belittled!
I have a good example of such a witty ad that pokes fun at its audience.
Almost half a decade below the HUL ad, MTV released a funny ad urging the youth to donate blood. It mocked our tendency to brag about every little thing we do. Yes, it used a stereotype about teenagers but yet it didn’t feel “insulting” because the dialogues had a good level of wit.
It was taken in good stride by everybody (you can watch it below). This proves that when you use sarcasm in the right tone, it works! It’s all about setting the tone right.
Plainly put, the issue with the HUL ad was with its lazy script writing, not the overall concept or message!
Apple’s Forced U2 Download
As part of its Fall event in September 2014, the technology giant presented a free copy of the U2 band’s album “Songs of Innocence” to everyone with an iTunes account (its flagship music streaming service) — whether they wanted it or not.
So basically, you got the album in your playlist/account without any message, notification, or option consent.
After the band delivered a short performance on stage, CEO Tim Cook announced that he wanted to get the album into as many people’s account as possible.
And to do so, Apple would attempt something it had never done before – it would forgo $100 million in sales & automatically push the album into the accounts of nearly 500 million iTunes subscribers for free.
Obviously, not everyone was a U2 fan, and they saw it as an invasion of their privacy, something Apple is usually known to protect & promote in its ad campaigns.
Wired described the giveaway as “devious” and a “worse than spam.” Salon argued that the giveaway had made U2 “the most hated band in America.”
Less than a week later, the public furor forced Apple to release instructions on how to remove the album for the account. The group leader Bono apologised for the debacle, too.
Don’t forcefully push anything on your customers’ plate.
They’re already sick of notifications, popup ads, re-targeted cookie-tracking campaigns, and SPAM emails. So creeping into their accounts & taking actions/decisions on their behalf is a big NO-NO.
Always give people a choice & respect their decision.
Also make sure you have clearly visible links to opt out, cancel, or unsubscribe anytime a user wants to part ways.
Customers hate having to jump through loops to cancel their commitments – they will actively criticize you on socials & the damage will cost you way more than a single cancellation.
If you’re making a change in pricing or the buying process, communicate it well in advance so your people can take action at leisure.
For example, when Starbucks raised their prices by a few cents once, they still let their patrons know about it (rather than hiding it under the rug), and explained that the rising costs in raw material for the coffee had forced them to take the call.
BTW, Apple’s creepy maneuver reminds me of Fiat’s blunder when it thought it would be a good idea to invade women’s privacy by delivering 50,000 Valentine’s Day love letters to their home’s postboxes in Spain.
The letters used wording like “We met again on the street yesterday and I noticed how you glanced in my direction,” and “Join me again for a little adventure.”
To make things worse, each letter was personally addressed, was completely anonymous, and contained no indication whatsoever that it was from Fiat!
Understandably, many recipients freaked out & called the cops.
Nothing like knowing a stalker has their prying eyes on you, eh?
Just. Don’t. Do. Creepy. Shit. Like. This.
DiGiorno’s Hashtag Fail
In 2014 the hashtags #whyIStayed & #whyILeft were trending about Twitter.
People were shedding light on their experiences with domestic violence in the wake of the Ray Rice abuse incident.
DiGiorno Pizza’s social media manager obviously didn’t look into what the hashtag meant. Thinking it was a prompt to share something funny, they used it in a tweet to advertise the brand: #whyIStayed You had pizza.
Of course, this was a facepalm moment & citizens educated the brand about their misunderstanding, after which the admin apologized in what was possibly their last tweet for the brand handle.
When you’re jumping on hashtags & internet trends, make sure you research the real context & origin story. If its tied to some social issue or controversial incident, you might be stepping onto a landmine for no reason.
Trying to stay relevant for the sake of it will blow up in your face – so always do your research before joining in & ensure that whatever you’re saying is really relevant to the brand.
McD’s Olympics Fiasco
In 1984, McDonald’s wanted to get in on the conversation surrounding the Summer Olympics event in Los Angeles.
This was normal considering how many brands try to sponsor or plan their campaigns around major sports events like IPL (in India) or NFL & FIFA World Cup.
The fast food giant handed out scratch cards with an Olympic event printed on them, and every time American athlete wins a medal, common Americans could win as well – a cola for bronze, fries for silver and finally BigMac for gold.
Footfall to their outlets was projected to rise as a result of this offer. With that, the sale of their items was also anticipated to increase, making up for the free food, and benefiting the company’s profit margin line in the end.
In 1976, the US had won only 34 gold medals and so the brand managers probably expected something similar.
But it happened so that the USSR and other socialist countries returned the favor of 1980 and boycotted the 1984 Olympics.
That’s why the USA got 83 gold medals instead of 34 as it was expected.
According to The New York Times, the McD team had calculated that American athletes would do well this year. ”But without the Soviets, U.S. athletes have done very, very well,” said Chuck Rubner, a spokesman for McDonald’s in Chicago.
As a result, individuals in the United States lined up in front of McDonald’s restaurants with scratch cards in hand. There had to be twice as much free food as anticipated. At the time, McDonald’s incurred heavy losses.
McDonald’s, on the other hand, never said how much damage the offer did. According to market sources, a few million dollars were lost three and a half decades ago as a result of this free offer.
The takeaway for marketers from this story is that we must always anticipate what would happen if the campaign goes sideways.
Having a “free-fall” offer without any max. cap or roof limit is a slippery slope.
So always have T&Cs mentioning “Until stocks last” or “Applicable for first 5000 customers only.”
There should always be guardrails, clear instructions, and a Plan B ready to fire at moment’s notice.
Before launching big-ticket campaigns, it also helps to have a brainstorming session where the team comes up with a “Doomsday” scenario, in which everyone comes up with the worst possible unexpected outcomes, friction, or obstacles that can take place during the execution phase.
Then you can actively set up countermeasures to tackle the same. It’s basically developing foresight & being prepared.
LifeLock’s Suicide Move
This story is similar to the McD case above insofar it warns marketers not to be too overconfident or bold in their claims & promises.
LifeLock, an American identity theft protection company, ran an exciting but risky campaign in 2006.
Todd Davis, CEO of LifeLock, published his Social Security number on the official website to prove that his system works as “LifeLock makes your personal information useless to a criminal.”
Sadly, it didn’t work in reality.
Tod has since been a victim of identity theft at least 13 times, according to the Phoenix New Times.
Moreover, the LifeLock was fined $12 million in March by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising.
Making grand & bold guarantees in your advertising can quickly backfire because hackers & even common folk nowadays love to find loopholes in every system that boasts about being impenetrable.
In fact, trying to be too proud of your product’s security or reliability can attract miscreants who will deliberately try to find errors or defects in it, just to tarnish your brand image.
So always be humble about your limitations and thoroughly stress-test/verify your claims before making them public.
Perhaps, Todd’s team could’ve consulted a few white-hat hackers to run simulations on whether it really makes sense to call LifeLock an unbreakable fortress for one’s personal information.
Running a simple field test could’ve helped them see the reality & avoid such a harmful blunder.
So that was our list of the worst marketing fails & disasters in history. They serve as references for what it means to take things too far in your marketing communications.
Which ones do you find interesting? Did we miss a juicy story that should be on this list?
Let me know your thoughts & suggestions in the comments below.