10 Of The Biggest Advertising Fails of all Time

As we’ve witnessed last week, after the much-ridiculed ad from Pepsi, it can be all too easy to get advertising wrong. Grabbing the attention of consumers is becoming increasingly difficult so brands know that they need to be creative and push boundaries in order to increase their market share.

But the line between being controversial enough that you get people talking and just purely insensitive or offensive is a fine one and often difficult to get right. Not only are they a costly mistake to make, but they can really damage your reputation. So after recent events, we decided to take a look at 10 of the worst advertising campaigns that didn’t quite hit the mark.


We start with one of the most recent and biggest advertising mistakes talked about by people everywhere.  The viral ad features reality TV star and model Kendall Jenner ending a heavily policed demonstration by approaching a police officer and handing him a can of Pepsi. Whilst Pepsi was trying to “project a global message of unity, peace and understanding”, the ad instead received backlash and accusations that the brand was trivialising recent protests across the US, in particular the Black Lives Matter movement. The video originally posted on YouTube, was removed less than 24 hours later and the brand has since apologised.


Another expensive and unsuccessful campaign was the 2006 Snickers TV advert featuring Mr T as BA Baracus from the popular TV series The A-Team. The ‘Get Some Nuts’ campaign features Mr T firing Snickers bars at a man speed walking in tight yellow shorts whilst yelling “Speed walking. I pity you fool. You a disgrace to the man race. It’s time to run like a real man.” The commercial, first broadcasted in the UK, was pulled by Mars after it received a large number of complaints from the US for being offensive to gay people and for suggesting that violence against LGBT people is acceptable. Interestingly, the ad was never shown in the US and no complaints were raised by the UK audience demonstrating the power of digital media.


E-commerce site Groupon aired a number of new advertisements during the 2011 Super Bowl but one ad quickly became the topic of conversation but for the wrong reasons. The commercial starring actor Timothy Hutton, began with him discussing the human rights issues in Tibet stating that “Their very culture is in jeopardy”. However he then follows this by saying “But they still whip up an amazing fish curry” whilst at a restaurant enjoying discounted Tibetan food purchased via Groupon. Understandably the ad received a lot of backlash for its exploitation of the tragedy in Tibet resulting in the ad being pulled just four days later.


After the detrimental 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, BP had a lot of damage control to undertake considering 100,000 barrels of oil were spewing into the Gulf of Mexico every day. Therefore, BP thought it would best for the CEO Tony Hayward to try and face some of the criticism. He filmed a short video in which he pledged that the company would take responsibility and address the damage caused. However, the advertisement came right after Hayward had made headlines by stating of the ongoing spill “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” Undeniably the ad was not well received and was widely criticized by people who suggested it would be wiser to spend the money on clean-up efforts rather than advertising.


In 2007 the Department of Health released an anti-smoking TV campaign that featured a man with a fish hook piercing his cheek being dragged along to a shop with similar images used on posters and press adverts. The campaign was aimed at highlighting the dangers of being ‘hooked’ on cigarettes and the range of ways the NHS can help in kicking the habit. The ad drew 774 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority who subsequently banned the commercial. Most people objected that the campaign was not only offensive but frightening and distressing to children.


This next disastrous advertising campaign comes from another carmaker but this time from US brand Ford. The advert for the new Fido hatchback was aimed at promoting the trunk’s large space by showcasing that you are able to fit at least three women. However, it seems Ford failed to see the issues with having three women seemingly tied up and in distress being driven by  former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who can be seen grinning and flashing the peace sign. Ford was of course forced to issue an apology and the advert was not used commercially.


Back in 2013, the Korean automaker released a commercial that was in very bad taste. To promote the release of their new vehicle, the IX35 crossover, the ad depicts a failed suicide attempt in a garage thanks to the vehicle failing to produce enough harmful emissions. The offensive film quickly became viral and the backlash followed. Both Hyundai and the German agency involved apologised for the controversial ad and removed it from YouTube where it was released.


Another controversial campaign that garnered heavy criticism for its message was the 2015 print ad by Protein World. The slimming firm’s campaign consisted of a bikini-clad model with a tagline that read “Are you beach body ready?” The brand was criticized for encouraging body shaming and promoting an unrealistic body image. The Advertising Standards Authority received nearly 400 complaints in the UK alone and gathered a lot of negative attention on social media that resulted in an online petition with more than 70,000 signatures and a protest. The ASA banned the campaign in its current form and also began an investigation with regard to its health claims.


Back in 2003, the children’s charity Barnardo’s created a provocative campaign to raise awareness for child poverty. The shocking series of images portrayed babies in pain with various items in their mouths from cockroaches to harmful chemicals and syringes. The ASA received 92 complaints in less than 24 hours for causing widespread offence which prompted an immediate investigation that resulted in the ad being banned. In response to this, Diana Green, Director of Communications at Barnardo’s stated: “We make no apologies because we have raised the debate of child poverty”.


The last advertising fail comes from German skincare Nivea who had to remove their latest advert after receiving backlash on social media. The campaign created for their invisible deodorant range had the following slogan “White is Purity” printed across an image of a woman. Posted on the firm’s Facebook page, the ad was originally aimed at their followers in the Middle East however the brand failed to take into account their global following which stands at 19 million. The ad was widely criticised for its racist connotations prompting Nivea to apologise and delete the post.

Advertising that pushes the boundaries will always divide opinions and will undoubtedly land better with some people than others. Ultimately, we live in a time whereby topics such as race, gender, sexual orientation and human rights remain sensitive discussion points. Addressing these in your advertising campaigns will always be risky. So before you get too creative, consider all possible outcomes your campaign could have and be prepared to address these in such a way that doesn’t create any long-term damage for your brand.

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