Advertising is a powerful tool for brands. Successful advertising will be unforgettable and help to develop brand identity, but over the years there have been many advertising campaigns that have been unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. These campaigns have shocked, upset, angered and painted the brand in a less than favorable light, and many of these companies have struggled to recover from such high profile blunders. How some of these campaigns saw the light of day is baffling, but the impact they have had (even though undesirable) demonstrates the sheer power and reach that advertising has for businesses.

10. La Redoute – Naked Man in Background

Despite being left slightly embarrassed by this blunder and having to apologize, the advertising mistake soon became an internet sensation and it could well have worked very favorably for the French fashion chain. The saying “there is no such thing as bad publicity” could be applied here, but not to all of the fails on this list. The blunder from La Redoute was on an advert for their children’s clothing line which saw a group of kids on the beach, but in the background there is a completely naked man wading in the water. This was supposed to have been airbrushed out of the photo, but once it went up online it was too late. It was taken down shortly after and an apology was made. In typical fashion, internet users began inserting the now-famous naked bather into famous world photos.

9. Susan Boyle – #susanalbumparty

A classic example of a Twitter hashtag PR disaster, somehow this blunder went undetected by the PR team until it was too late. In order to celebrate and promote the launch of Susan Boyle’s new album, the PR team made the smart decision to host an album listening party where users could tweet in and have questions answered by Susan Boyle. The team clearly did not put too much thought into the hashtag, however, which read #susanalbumparty. Those with an adult sense of humor, which is almost the entire internet, immediately saw this as su’s anal bum party instead, and soon it was trending worldwide. This could have been simple innocence and naivety, or alternatively it was a promotional masterstroke as it generated an enormous amount of publicity and put Susan Boyle back in the public eye (although she was most likely left slightly red-faced by the incident).

8. Jagermeister – Poisoned Pool Water

Promotional parties are a great way for companies such as Jagermeister to win over fans and promote brand loyalty, but not so much if you poison the guests. At a sponsored party in Mexico in 2013, the German liquor brand did themselves no favors and had a lot more than a damaged reputation to worry about. To create a “smoke on the water” effect, the organizers poured liquid nitrogen into the pool which immediately reacted with the chorine to create a toxic cloud. This created panic, with several people collapsing and others falling ill because of the fumes. Eight party goers had to be taken to hospital, whilst one slipped into a coma. Many who drink Jagermeister like to party hard, but hospitalization and toxic fumes was perhaps a step too far, and the incident could have easily been avoided with a simple bit of research prior to the event.

7. McDonald’s – #McDstories

The internet can be a crazy place, and this can make social marketing that encourages consumer interaction a risk due to the enormous platform it provides. This is particularly true for companies such as McDonald’s. Although they are immensely popular and successful, they are also not without their haters and have a history of controversy. In 2012, McDonald’s launched a Twitter campaign that encouraged consumers to share the good times they have had at McDonald’s by using #McDstories. This encourages consumer interaction and effectively allows the consumers to do the advertising for McDonald’s, but as it turned out McDonald’s is too large and too controversial for a campaign such as this. People began tweeting about their negative experiences and lots of jokes at the expense of the fast-food chain, including ex-employee stories, finding fingernails in the food and suffering from stomach problems. The campaign was pulled within two hours.

6. Celeb Boutique – Aurora Tweet

Twitter is an enormous platform for companies to advertise, engage and communicate with the world. This can be both positive and negative, and Celeb Boutique found this out the hard way after an insensitive tweet was made and seen my millions. Following the tragic shooting in Aurora in 2011, many took to Twitter to offer their support, condolences and thoughts on the incident. The UK-based retailer then made the mistake of tweeting the following – “#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress ;)” followed by a link to the dress. After about an hour, by which it had been retweeted hundreds of times, the tweet was taken down and Celeb Boutique apologized profusely and stated that because their PR is not US-based it had not checked the reason for the trend. This is a particularly important social media lesson for brands to learn.

5. Vodafone – Arab Spring Ad

Vodafone is one of the biggest mobile telecommunications companies in the world, but their reputation took an enormous blow in 2011 after a huge advertising fail. The advert suggested that the company had inspired Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution. The advert starts with vignettes from their “power to you” campaign, which launched in January 2011, and then showed images of the political rallies and protests. The advert then states “we didn’t send people to the streets, we didn’t start the revolution…we only reminded Egyptians how powerful they are.” This implies that Vodafone had a prominent role in the upbringing and gatecrashes on the success of the people, as well as overlooks the many years of oppression, brutality, torture and activism that lead to this moment. Vodafone were already under scrutiny as they had cut their services as the uprising was happening, allegedly under government orders.

4. Groupon – Super Bowl commercial

Advertising during the Super Bowl is the ultimate window of opportunity for brands to raise awareness and paint themselves in a favorable light. If the advert is memorable, it could help the brand to become more successful, but it of course must be memorable for the right reasons. Groupon made a terrible fumble with their advert in 2011, seeing their reputation take a huge hit around the world. The ad, featuring Timothy Hutton, caused outrage by making light of all the suffering and struggles in Tibet. Hutton starts off by describing the difficulties the Tibetan people face, but how they “still whip up an amazing fish curry” and how you can save money on this with Groupon. The CEO would later state that they were trying to poke fun at themselves and that the execution didn’t come off, and they decided to pull the ads due to the offense it caused.


3. Adult Swim – Aqua Teen Hunger Force Guerrilla Marketing

Guerrilla marketing is a fantastic way to grab the audience’s attention in an unconventional way, and the campaigns are typically unforgettable. This was the case for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim in 2007 when they were advertising for the cartoon series Aqua Teen Hunger Force, but it was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons and attracted a lot of negative attention. To promote the film, a group of artists placed LED placards resembling two characters all around the city of Boston. Unfortunately, the strange appearance of these devices, which had complicated circuits and strange characters showing their middle fingers, caused alarm and they were mistakenly thought to be explosive devices. The police and fire department were called out and arrested two men. $2 million would later be paid in amends by Turner Broadcasting. The GM would later resign after the blunder.

2. Coca-Cola – New Coke

This marketing blunder is one of the most famous of all time, and it is often used as cautionary tale in advertising and marketing. In 1985, after conducting extensive taste tests, Coca-Cola made the strange decision to change the 100-year-old Coke formula into what they claimed was a better and sweeter taste. Coke was re-branded and advertised as New Coke in an attempt to win back ground lost to Pepsi, but the reaction to the new version of the drink was terrible and even turned hostile, with the public demanding for the historic formula to return. Under three months later, classic Coke was back on the market after Coca-Cola had to make a swift U-turn. This is the perfect example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and how you should never tamper with a well-established, much loved and classic product such as Coke.

1. Hoover – Free Flights

The majority of advertising fails can be laughed off or even work in a brand’s favor. Hoover’s infamous fail in August of 1992 was a complete disaster that cost the company almost £50 million, and caused the British division to be sold to the Italian manufacturer Candy, not to mention the terrible publicity. Created to clear a backlog of stock, Hoover offered consumers two free return flights to Europe (later expanded to the USA) for those that purchased at least £100 worth of products. The demand was staggering and too much for Hoover to handle, and over the next 21 months the disaster continued to ravage the company, costing them a fortune. Around 222,000 people managed to get their flights, but many did not and it became known as one of the worst marketing disasters of all time. The public’s love for a great deal should never be underestimated.