We all love success. We all are hungry for fame and name. To make our business efficient and more productive than the last year, we constantly strive to improve our marketing strategies. In the era of digital media, it is all about having a positive digital reputation intact. If it is marred, you lose it all. Engaging in any form of controversial marketing is the beginning of the end for a brand.
Controversies in marketing are nothing uncommon. But what’s important is, to learn from the mistake. These days, a business thrives upon compelling advertising. Simply put, advertising and marketing campaigns help a business grow and flourish. If one wonders how advertising strategies can augment their business, they must put a glance over some of the big shots and leading global brands’ marketing endeavors.
Many famous brands have all made it big with successful advertising campaigns. Everything for them fell in the right place, the PR campaigns went great, and thus, they are what we know of them.
Be it one of the best sports brand Nike, or the beverage giant Coca Cola, or the most loved coffee brewing chain, Starbucks – all these brands had one thing in common. Nothing was overdone in their strategies. Nothing went over the top, they identified what exactly would engage their target audience, and then sold later. First, engage and then sell! This was the motto these brands have all followed until now.
Effects of Ethical Marketing with Wholehearted Intention
People remember brands that come up with ad campaigns that play on the emotional quotient. Not only they remember, but they also turn into long-term customers of those brands. And often these customers act as brand advocates. They endorse the brands they love through word of mouth marketing.
The 2012 Procter & Gamble the “Thank You, Mom” ad campaign received so much of adulation, just because millions of mothers and their children could connect with that ad. Though a TVC, but the content they showed, pulled at the heartstrings of everyone who viewed it. And thus, voila! The ad campaign was a phenomenal success owing to the nostalgia marketing influence it created on people.
In 2017, Google paid homage to the millions of Google searches that were done in 2016. People had searched for every significant event that paused the world on Google with the adverb ‘how’. And Google showed how the world, as to ‘how’ we are all dependent on Google for everything we search. The 3 minutes video was simple, yet hard-hitting.
Now if you ask, what made it so powerful and intense, then there should be only one answer – the commonality. People found the content familiar with every one of them and could actually connect with the same. And that’s how the ad no longer was just an ad campaign extension, but a true and shared experience.
However, these were the marketing campaigns and advertisements that received global praise. But what about those that received global flak? What happens when things don’t go as you have planned? How do pretentious and flawed marketing and ad campaigns backfire on a brand and weaken it? Well, that’s what happened with some of the brands known worldwide. That said, even the big shots make mistakes!
Many of them learned their lesson the hard way. Before embarking on the international market, consider the cultural norms and values of each region, the humor and slangs, the sentiment and etiquette. Because all of these are the quintessential elements that can either make, or break your brand.
Take some time, sit with your ad agency, or your in-house team, do some considerable research, and then step into the global market which is too volatile. You never know which content hits a person where. If a brand is trying to connect with the aborigines of Africa, but shows European or American models in their ad, that will be a massive fail.
Or if someone is trying to encash a jarring social issue, it will backfire and be ridiculed. Hence, do your research before ringing the bell, because you cannot unring it. Controversial marketing strategies never worked before, nor it does now and would never will in the future.
So now let’s raise the curtain on some of these flawed marketing campaigns that were not taken so pleasantly, than what was thought they would be.
1. Pepsi – The Brand with several Blunders
This favorite brand of packages carbonated drink has a long trace of lousy marketing strategies. When Pepsi first tried its hand (read ‘brand’), in China, it launched with a big bang. But it was an equally big fail. Pepsi launched its drinks accompanied by a slogan – “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life“. Well, this may sound chic, but when it comes to the Orient, it was not appreciated.
Pepsi found the actual Mandarin translation; the faulty transcript was “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. Such a shame where ancestors have a significant impact on their culture! China holds a great value for ancestor worship and would not like anyone messing with them. This earned Pepsi a bad name there.
This was not the first blunder of Pepsi. In 2013, one of their ads was pulled because of trivializing violence against women and racism. The ad showed a battered and somewhat older woman having to identify her perpetrators. There was also a goat amongst the convicts. Yes, you read it correctly. A goat! Was it an act of inducing fun element or merely a show of mockery that is still unknown.
Humor is good, but not when the context deals with social issues like violence and racism. However, Pepsi undoubtedly had to pull it due to the global flak it received.
And the more recent, the 2017 Pepsi ad campaign that apparently wanted to equate their product as a culturally unifying force. Like seriously? Who would want to see reality show starrer Kendall Jenner in a blonde wig, dark matte lipstick, performing a catwalk and handing over a can of Pepsi to a police officer? Thus quite settling a stand-off between the protesters and the police and the crowd cheering along.
2017 was altogether a big year for political activism and social issues. The ad showcased similarities between protests of the international movement Black Lives Matter. So was it that easy? Handing a can of Pepsi to subdue a mass protest? Was the #BlackLivesMatter issue so trivial that could be easily handled by offering Pepsi?
Sprinkling Pepsi over the burning social issues was the major fail, and Pepsi indeed missed the mark. Though initially, they stood beside the add, but gradually with overwhelming protests over social media, and parody on SNL, they apologized and halted the campaign.
Though the brand tried to justify the ad as a global message of unity and harmony, Brad Jakeman, PepsiCo president, commented while stepping down that the advertising spot was one of the most harrowing and gut-wrenching experiences of his entire career.
2. The New Coke – A Fiasco bigger than the Brand itself
The fail was inevitable. Coca Cola is an American dream, its roots are deep inside the American culture. And when Coke deliberately tried to uproot this embedded culture, the outcome was disastrous.
Well, it all started in 1985, when Coke decided to experiment something new. They rolled out a new formula and gave the name – New Coke. Though the focus groups gave the new formula a good rating and claimed that it even tasted better than the original flavor, the New Coke was a big fail already. Why it didn’t work or why the people hated the release is a debatable topic.
Sometimes we love a product not just because we need it or it satiates us. We love it because it is there around since time immemorial. This is what happened in the mid- eighties when people found New Coke replacing their fondly loved old Coke. It clashed with their sentiments and hit them hard.
Americans wanted back their original Coke that their grandparents gifted them on their birthdays. That which was endorsed by Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Despite the good taste, people started despising the new formula just because it alienated from their culture.
Such profound was the impact that the beverage company had to hire dedicated psychologists to listen to the complaint calls the company was receiving. It was a whopping 1500 calls per day! Some callers were so shattered as if they were bereaved. The marketing failure also dropped Coke’s sales in other countries. This worldwide outcry forced Coca Cola to revert to their old coke, and that’s what we are still sipping on.
Coca Cola’s iconic influence on people was the primary reason for their failure; people considered the drink as an integral part of their lives. Losing something so dear was equal to losing someone in the family. Such was the brand image of Coca Cola those days, and is still now.
And the irony is, Pepsi, Coke’s most famous adversary, took the opportunity and piggybacked on the fiasco. They came up with several witty ad contents over the New Coke and even gained several new buyers. Bravo Pepsi!
3. Ford – The brand that made its name synonymous with Marketing Bloopers and Fails
The Ford Pinto disaster in the 70’s that ruined the famous car brand’s name in Southern America. Back in 1975, the automobile company introduced Ford Pinto in Brazil. However, there was no fact check and regional language research done. And which resulted in a massive ad disaster and a shameful experience for Ford.
However, in 2013, Ford once again became gained fame for all the wrong reason. Just when Harvey Weinstein was all over the news, and the #MeToo movement was taking the world by storm, Ford India came up with their novel ad content. Though apparently the three posters were not meant for any commercial use, they were already out there on the web.
One of the notorious posters was about the new Ford Figo that showed three women gagged and bound by hands and feet. The women were shown scantily clad and crammed in the back of the hatchback. And in the front seat, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi could be seen with a nasty grin a ‘peace sign’. The tagline read – “ Leave Your Worries Behind”.
Not only they were misogynist, but also had an obscene undertone. Moreover, protesters also pointed out how the ad glorified violence against women soon after the country was reeling from the gut-wrenching incident of a sexual assault on a woman by six men.
Another ad showed celebrity entrepreneur and hotel owner Paris Hilton on the front seat, and the Kardashian sisters in the back. The theme was same, scantily-clad, gagged and bound women! It’s still a mystery what exactly Ford wanted to prove with such detestable caricatures. And there was the third one, which showed Formula One racer Michael Schumacher kidnapping his male competitors.
Such obnoxious ad campaigns were quick to kindle global flak and criticism and WPP admitted the blunder. The company, along with its Indian advertising agency JWT apologized and issued their statement. Ford also admitted that the ads were against Ford’s protocol and professionalism, and were contrary to the decency the company abides by.
WPP further mentioned oversight and regretted the act saying these ads must never have been created, let alone uploaded on the web. But until then the damage was already done. Millions viewed the ads. Though WPP emphasized that these ads were never made for paid publication, it is still a wonder why these kinds of content came into someone’s mind! This was a clear case of controversial marketing that went worse.
4. Heineken Clearly Missed the Mark
While we are always extra happy to chug down our beers, especially when it’s Heineken – the racist fiasco it did, is difficult to shove down our throat. Heineken recently came up with an ad content to promote their new Heineken Light Beer, that played too light on a sensitive issue like racism.
The tagline “Sometimes Lighter Is Better” is definitely referring to their new-found beer variety. But with several people, it is also about complexion. And the ad that was aired clearly fueled to this notion. The ad showed a beer is sliding down a bar and passes dark-skinned people and stops only into the hands of a fair and ‘light-skinned’ woman. The deduction was made then and there. Chance, The Rapper tweeted about the hard-hitting racism the ad showed and pilloried the ad campaign heavily.
The beer company had to apologize publicly and admitted to having been missed the mark. This is another fine example of questionable marketing that clearly dooms your brand. The marketing team may always be diverse and aware enough to spot such controversial issues. Or else, here comes another apology!
5. KFC – A Hint of Cannibalism?
The well known fried chicken franchisee received a backlash over its ad campaign in China in the late 1980s when KFC tried to open outlets in the country. Perhaps their market research and copywriters team were too laid back to do a thorough market research and language translations.
This led to the infamous KFC ad in Beijing, in their first outlet where the iconic slogan – “It’s Finger Lickin Good” was translated to “good to eat your fingers off”. The slogan was rendered to be an invitation to the Chinese people to eat their fingers off – such a sick message from a food chain. KFC made the Chinese consumers think twice before entering the outlet.
Unbeknown to the brand, it was indeed an incident of shock advertising! KFC was too quick to understand the catastrophe and quickly issued an apology and made amends. It is always recommended to perform a thorough research on the specific market and the target audience, a brand is about to focus.
Linguistic misinterpretations are too tricky to deal with as they hurt the sentiments of the localites. Simply hire a native speaker of your target language for your copy writings. They will have all the required resources to make your brand a hit in the first go! Such controversial marketing campaigns are best to be prevented with the help of a second opinion.
6. Dove – Black and White. Dirty and Clean!
Dove recently cooked up major heat over social media through its most unthoughtful and biased ad. The spot showed four panels, in three of them a black woman could be seen removing her shirt, and in the fourth one, out of nowhere, a white woman comes up. It led to a huge mayhem over Twitter and other social networks and Dove had to apologize for the mistake.
The ad clearly suggested that Dove body wash helped to clean up a ‘dirty’ black woman into a ‘clean’ white woman. It intended to showcase the diversity of real beauty, but played it silly. Twiterattis had a field day excoriating the ad and its racist undertone. The damage to Dove’s reputation was already done despite the apologies and acceptance of the blunder. Dove’s intention was never to turn up its commercial into a Google search as “dove racist ad”, but that was exactly what happened.
Moreover, no agency confessed or took the responsibility of the infamous ad campaign. So, the key takeaway from the incident is to be respectful and mindful about cultural and racial differences because each culture has its own set of taboos and sentiments. Such graphical imagery that shows a black woman turning into a white one, thus symbolizing beauty – is downright wrong!
Brands are duly requested to look before taking the leap. Ad agencies aspire to be novel in their effort, but end up in failed and controversial marketing strategies.
7. Kenneth Cole “Cairo” Tweet
A big rule of thumb, never encash on any political unrest, or you may end up like Kenneth Cole. When people take to streets and lanes protesting against their government, perhaps that’s not the best time to advertise your spring collections! Well, that exactly happened in 2011, when Kenneth Cole, the celebrity American fashion designer and fashion house owner, ignorantly tweeted something.
His tweet sparked controversy and outcry over the social media so much so that the fashion house had to pull the tweet and issue an apology quickly. The insensitive tweet read – “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online”. And this was tweeted right amid the Egyptian Revolution in which 840 people were killed.
Twiterattis viciously roasted the tweet and its ignorance of the grave situation. Some protesters even made fake Kenneth Cole PR account and roasted the brand online. Though later the brand apologized by saying they did not intend to trivialize the situation and they do acknowledge the sensitivity of the historical moment, their reputation was already impaired.
And if someone yet thinks the 2011 event was a one-off thing, in 2013 again, Kenneth Cole tweeted another insensitive comment. This time it was the Syrian crisis when militaries were scattered in the country, bombardments were frequent taking the lives of hundreds of thousands. The tweet was – “Boots on the ground” or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers”! Perhaps Kenneth Cole is addicted to questionable advertising strategies.
8. Audi – Comparisons went Wrong!
The most prestigious German automobile manufacturing brand with years of untainted reputations suddenly drew some harmful sparks over the social media lately.
In 2017, Audi rolled out a campaign with a TVC that showed a soon-to-be mother-in-law goes up to the altar and performs a thorough checking of her soon-to-be daughter-in-law. The mother checks the bride’s teeth and tongue, pinches her nose and lips, pulls her hair and then nods for approval!
As ridiculous as it sounds, Audi was ignorant and thoughtless by creating the commercial and airing it. Severe backlash was received and several people unanimously demeaned the sexist ad. Yes, there’s no denying to the fact that Audi always promotes a careful checking when it comes to buying a car. But a car is a car! And a woman is a human, made of flesh and blood.
The sexist and did nothing but reduced the stature of a lady to a mere vehicle. Of course funny wins big, but not by poking fun at sensitive issues. A brand must not give in to slapstick fun at the cost of a few chuckles. Establishing a brand and promoting its intrinsic values take time. But letting it all go takes seconds.
At present, online reputation and digital image are all that a brand has. Audi may not have intended to belittle a woman, but nonetheless, if a touchy subject is in question, it is always better to give it a second thought. Anything and everything your marketing team brings as a marketing idea must not be accepted. Or this may hurt the brand tremendously. The ad is still considered as one of the most controversial ads of all time.
9. Pampers – The Stork Fallacy
When it is about the comfort of their little ones, parents always choose the best brand. Pampers is one such brand with a 41 years-long history of providing baby-care products. However, as much as the brand is loved in the West, in Japan, it was met with a frown on the early 70’s.
Pampers advertised with an image of a stork delivering the nappies. Now, the Westerners are all familiar with the concept of storks delivering babies. But owing to the cultural differences between the two continents, the Japanese parents were confused with the image. This is what happens when there’s absolutely no research work done for the local customs, traditions and folklore.
The stork image lost its value and hindered loss for the brand. It emerged as a meaningless marketing campaign with half-hearted research. For any brand, it is of paramount importance to know about any cultural difference they are targeting their ad towards. Or before presenting their product to the global audience. This was a case of not what was said or done, but what was presented and most importantly, how it was presented.
To appease the Japanese consumers, significant changes were made to the image, giving it a different meaning that is more aligned to the culture of Japan. This was one of those failed marketing campaigns that made the brand improve their marketing skills.
10. Cadbury – Not a Sweet Story
It feels so bad right seeing the world’s most favorite chocolate brand in this list? Well, if not Cadbury’s marketing team was not so mindless, had this big fiasco never happened. Back in 2017, Cadbury decided the remove the word ‘Easter’ from its annual egg hunt. This did not play well with the sentiment of people who hold Easter so dearly to them. People got angry, and backlashes started over social media.
Dropping the word Easter from the Easter holiday itself, was not only ridiculous but also hurting to the Christian sentiments.
The furor was so widespread that even the ex British Prime Minister Theresa May voiced her annoyance over the issue. She mentioned that the move was ridiculous. This blunder was criticized and Cadbury was quick to act upon. They added the word ‘Easter’ back to their promotional materials.
Last year, there was another scuttlebutt going around that Cadbury has dropped the word again. But the chocolate brand politely and smartly managed the situation and mentioned nothing of that sort was going to happen. Well, Cadbury at east learned their lesson.
There are endless examples of failed marketing campaigns throughout the history of marketing. Be it McDonald’s infamous 2017 ad of a recently bereaved son. The viewers saw the son nostalgically asking about his father to his mother, only to discover that the ad was about one of the MacD sandwiches. It turns out that the son and his father both shared the love for McDonald’s filet-o-fish sandwiches.
The famous fast-food company was roasted and criticized for piggybacking on someone’s grief and loss of a parent. It was considered to be a mockery to the memories the bereaved family members hold for the departed. There has to be a minimum amount of marketing ethics in any product promotion or campaign.
Similarly, Starbucks’ 2002 “Collapse into cool ” campaign, that was not so cool. People drew an imagery with the word ‘collapse’ with the WTC attack a year prior. The coffee brewing giant was also in the limelight on 2001 when they charged the EMT workers a whopping $130 for water.
Not to forget Chevrolet’s blooper when they released their model Nova in Spain, no knowing that the word translated to “no go” in Spanish. The way Pringles advertised their Bacon flavored chips as Ramadan special, when Ramadan involves strict fasting. Moreover, any pork product is forbidden in Islam. The Tesco supermarket received serious backlash over the incident on social media.
And lastly, as Yellow Pages tried to promote its worldliness with much loved Korean dish bibimbap. Though bibimbap is a rice dish, the Toronto subway ads showcased a bowl of noodles with chopsticks, while the actual bibimbap is eaten with a spoon.
The list for such pretentious and erroneous ad campaigns can be endless. Big brands make bigger mistakes. And since they have a big name, the loss is more. It takes seconds for a brand’s reputation to take south owing to any dubious marketing strategy.
Public mishaps can have a long-term adverse effect on a brand. Before scoping out with any ad or marketing campaign, targeted to a specific audience or global audience, take a hard look at the content of the campaign. Consider the current social issues, the trends, contexts. And always ask for a second opinion before going live with any campaign.
Fun is a subjective feeling. Something funny and humorous to you, might not be to others. Examine the cultural norms of a specific place when you target that market. To err is human, but some errors create scars that are hard to heal. Every business or enterprise, be it a big brand or a start-up, wants to go viral. But it’s always better to get viral for the right reasons.
Marketing teams and copywriters must put more thought into the marketing campaigns they come up with. Some agencies pose as masters in the art of marketing campaigns fail to create the desired impact. One must find the right professional digital marketing agency with years of experience in ad campaigns.
That’s the best way not to fail in marketing your product or services to a global audience.
If you know about any other major controversial marketing campaign that received global backlash, do let us know. We would love to discuss it in our next blog. Until then, safe marketing!