How many times have you looked at an advertisement and thought, “How did they think that was a good idea?” Well, more often than not, you are not the only one with that same thought. Below we have compiled a list of, in our professional opinion, the worst marketing failures in the last decade, as well as what you can learn from these public blunders.
1. Snapchat: Would You Rather Ad
A social media app that has seen significant growth and popularity, Snapchat’s introduction to advertisements led to nightmare after insulting one of the world’s most popular celebrities.
An ad for a user game called ‘Would You Rather?’ presented it’s users with the following question: “Would you rather slap Rihanna or punch Chris Brown?”
Even though the domestic violence case between Rihanna and Chris Brown occurred years ago, this move was poorly received and publicly addressed by Rihanna herself.
She responded to Snapchat’s public apology for the ad on Instagram by sharing her disappointment in the company and how a marketing stunt like that has let down not only her but other domestic violence victims as well.
2. SONY: WHITE VS. BLACK PSP AD
Started back in 2006, Sony celebrated the release of their new white PSP device with giant billboards that generated immediate backlash.
The billboards all had a central theme: a white woman subduing a black woman, representing the all white PSP model’s dominance over the older black portable console. While Sony stated they didn’t intend for the ad to be racist, viewers saw it another way.
Flash forward to 2017, the advertisement resurfaced 2017 in a viral tweet. Many people who were seeing the ad for the first time thought it was current and rekindled the firestorm.
3. Wendy’s: Twitter Meme
This next marketing fail proves that once you post content online, it can never be permanently erased.
Wendy’s got into a tweet battle with customers over whether they really use fresh beef. At first, it wasn’t a big deal, but it eventually escalated.
Then, Wendy’s responded by posting a meme. While a strategic thought by keeping current with the times, the character in their meme missed the mark.
Their meme post featured “Pepe the frog” who was used by white supremacists in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
The images were pulled, but not before screenshots were taken, and while Wendy’s quickly realized their mistake, the damage was done.
4. Facebook: VR Puerto Rico Tour
Following the destruction from a horrible hurricane season, Puerto Rico was left in shambles. Mark Zuckerberg used Facebook’s VR app Spaces to tour through an NPR-produced 360-video of Puerto Rico.
While the intention behind this Facebook Live video was to show how much aid Facebook was providing to Puerto Rico, it came off as completely tone deaf. The avatars on screen sported cartoon smiling faces.
The general reaction perceived that Zuckerberg was exploiting the disaster to show off Facebook’s VR capabilities.
5: IHOP: IHOb?
In 2018, IHOP publicly announced that it was changing it’s famous acronym to IHOb (‘b’ for burgers), which generated a news and social media frenzy. Where some people admitted to the success of the alteration stunt, others found it to be ill-advised and a poor tactic because it was just a trick.
After generating such a high response, IHOP launched a new line of burgers with a marketing campaign that referred to them as “pancakes.” Get it?
Hoping to make an even bigger impact, this move did not generate quite as much news or social media attention as the fake rebranding and it just further confused the market.
After the intentional stunt and follow-up, customers may find it hard to believe anything that is released by the company, or pay attention to it altogether.
6. Airbnb: Aquatic Email
Another marketing fail caused by bad timing, Airbnb launched their ‘floating world’ marketing campaign, which included an image of a water-themed house sitting on the surface of water.
The copy included, “Stay above water,” and “live aquatic life with these floating homes.”
Under general context, this ad seems pretty harmless right?
Well, this campaign launched on August 28, 2017, when Hurricane Harvey was engulfing Houston.
7. Tropicana: Pandemic Ad
During the peak of the pandemic, a majority of companies emphasized messages of unity within their advertisements and marketing. The beverage brand, Tropicana, however, decided to take an alternate approach by launching it’s #TakeAMimoment campaign in late 2020.
This campaign featured parents juggling their work, kid’s remote schooling, and quarantine by encouraging them to sneak away from their kids to drink mimosas.
Immediate backlash over the tone-deaf message forced an equally swift apology, where the brand stated that it “in no way meant to imply that alcohol is the answer or make light of the struggles of addiction.”
8. Adidas: Boston Marathon Email
Back in 2017, Adidas customers who participated in the Boston Marathon received a poorly worded, tone-deaf email from the major shoe and sports attire company.
This subject line read, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!”
Under general, fitness-event context, this is just a common phrase used by many fitness enthusiasts. For example, many people exclaim that they survived after completing their first cycle class. Unfortunately for Adidas, their message was sent following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured more than 250 people.
Many people immediately took offense, and while the major company issued a public apology, the damage had already took place.
9. Pepsi: ‘Black Lives Matter
Coming in at our #1 spot on our list is the worst cringe-worthy case of the decade- Pepsi’s Black Lives Matter.’ In 2017, Pepsi boldly missed the mark when they rolled out a commercial in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2017.
The ad features Kendall Jenner in the middle of a photoshoot where she notices protestors taking to the streets, and upon observation, decides to join the movement. Where the ad falls flat is in the moment Kendall Jenner transitions the protests into applause by simply handing a police officer a Pepsi.
The backlash erupted moments after the ad aired, where Activists blasted the commercial for trivializing a serious issue. Pepsi pulled the ad.
Marketing has been used by companies for centuries, demonstrating their participation in society-driven movements, creating humor out of present-day characters, emphasizing unity and contribution through economic challenges, all in a mission to relate to their ever-evolving audience. While many strategic marketing campaigns are met with reciprocal success, others fall flat in their timing, phrasing, and/or overall delivery.
What can we learn from these public failures? Well, our MCDA CCG, INC. team recommends that you always put genuine thought into your marketing strategy, remain intentional about your message, your offer, and the features you use to communicate.
Every business hopes to make a big impact or go viral, but make sure you are getting attention for the right reason – not because you’re chasing popularity.
What’s the best way to succeed at marketing? Start with a solid strategy and appropriately execute.
Or of course, you can speak with one of our business marketing experts at MCDA CCG in Placentia, Orange County, California.