Ah, the Super Bowl ad. For many, particularly those who could care less about football 364 days of the year, the big game represents the chance to see some of the most creative and expensive commercials all in one place. Super Bowl 50 is already set to deliver some good ones, including this Heinz one and a hilarious spot for Shock Top featuring funny man TJ Miller of Silicon Valley fame. Corporations typically whip up their best work for this annual event but not all ads are created equal. Some Super Bowl ads are just plain bad, but it takes some real effort to create an ad as controversial as the ones featured on this list.
10. GoDaddy Puppy
Domain registrar GoDaddy is no stranger to controversial ads (their ads generally rotate between being offensive or trashy) but this Super Bowl ad from 2015 pissed off a lot of people — particularly those with a soul — thanks to its bleak treatment of an adorable puppy. The ad may come off as more black humor than offensive to some, but it was so poorly-received by animal lovers that it never actually ran during the Super Bowl. Instead, GoDaddy and Barton F. Graf, the agency responsible for the ad, were forced to quickly come up with a puppy-free spot that ended up airing during the game. If you’re going to use a cute animal in your commercial, it’s probably best to play up that cuteness rather than exploit it to the point where you’re being called out for animal mistreatment. Just a thought.
9. GM Robot
General Motors ran this ad during the 2007 Super Bowl, with the company claiming that the ad was meant to showcase their obsession with making quality automobiles. That’s a commendable sentiment but it does to little to hide the deeply disturbing tone of this commercial, which features a robot that is fired for committing a minor error on the job. We then see the robot fail to find meaningful work before throwing itself off a bridge in the middle of the night. Sure, the robot didn’t actually die (it was all a dream!) but the explicit suicide imagery raised the ire of the American Society for Suicide Prevention, which voiced its objection loud and clear, forcing GM to re-edit the commercial to remove the robocide.
8. Groupon Tibet
This Groupon ad from 2011 starts out promisingly enough, highlighting some of the serious humanitarian issues being suffered by the people of Tibet. Unfortunately, all of that goodwill quickly goes out the window once the focus switches to how Americans can exploit that suffering for their own personal gain. The campaign was so poorly received that Groupon CEO not only pulled the ads but took personal responsibility for the decision to run with it. Less than a month later, he waffled on his original position and shifted the blame to the agency that Groupon hired, CP&B, telling BusinessWeek that he “placed too much trust in the agency to be edgy, informative, and entertaining.” It’s hardly surprising that Groupon wouldn’t air another ad for three years.
Operating on the assumption that anyone who watches football must be a homophobic mess of a man, Snickers ran this spot that featured two heterosexual mechanics accidentally kissing after sharing a Snickers bar. They then proceed to start ripping out their chest hair in a desperate bid to appease the dudebro God, lest he strike them down where they stand for infringing on the rules of “manliness.” Understandably, the Gay and Lesbian Anti Defamation League leveled charges of homophobia against the candy bar brand. Fun fact: this ad was named the second worst Super Bowl ad of all time by Ad Age in 2011.
Sexist ads are par for the course during major sporting events like the Super Bowl, but sometimes they just go too far and spark considerable outrage. Take this Doritos ad, which features a man so disconnected from his partner that the only way for her to get his attention is to tape a couple of bags of Cool Ranch Doritos to her chest. He then proceeds to ignore her anyway while taking handfuls of chips from her well-positioned bags (pun intended) while she rolls her eyes disdainfully. Fortunately, Dorito’s message (that women rank even lower than salty tortilla chips in men’s eyes) didn’t make it to air during the 2009 Super Bowl, sparing women across America from being forced to become human chip holders by their doting significant others.
5. Salesgenie Pandas
People love pandas, but when you create an ad filled with as many cringe-worthy Chinese stereotypes as the one Salesgenie aired during the 2008 Super Bowl, that love only extends so far. Bamboo furniture stores and terrible Chinese accents are just a couple of the poor decisions featured in this ad, which was labelled racist after the spot aired. Salesgenie ended up issuing an apology and pulled the commercial.
4. Pete Hoekstra Senate Ad
There’s never a shortage of terrible political campaign ads circulating in the United States at any given time, but Republican Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra’s 2012 ad that aired during the 2012 Super Bowl in Michigan might be one of the most offensive ever made. Hoekstra essentially threw in every bad Asian stereotype he could think of — broken English, rice fields, you name it — and came up with this mess designed to attack his opponent’s platform He even had the audacity to change his opponent’s last name from Stabenow to SpendItNow in a cringe-worthy display of appealing to the lowest common denominator. Would it surprise you to learn that Hoeskstra ended up losing the Senate race by a wide margin? We didn’t think so.
Nationwide has had enormous success when it comes to NFL-themed ads in recent years by featuring Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in their spots, but the insurance company courted controversy during the 2015 Super Bowl with “Nationwide Boy.” What begins innocently enough as a young boy listing off the many childhood joys he’ll never get to experience transitions to an extremely dark place when it’s revealed that the boy actually died in a preventable car crash. The Twitterverse blew up after the ad aired, with many accusing Nationwide of exploiting tragedy in order to sell insurance. Unsurprisingly, Nationwide has chosen not to run an ad at this year’s Super Bowl.
2. Holiday Inn “Bob Johnson”
1999 was a banner year for extremely controversial Super Bowl ads, as evidenced by the ads featured in the top 2 positions on this list. The first one we want to highlight is Holiday Inn’s “Bob Johnson” spot, which features a beautiful woman making her way through a crowded room while a narrator lists off the costs of her various plastic surgeries. The ad then goes way over the line by having a man flirt with her, only for his excitement to turn to horror when he realizes that this beautiful woman is actually his former classmate, Bob Johnson. Understandably, the ad did not sit well with the transgender community, prompting Holiday Inn to abandon the campaign not long after the Super Bowl.
1. Just For Feet
The second entry from the infamous 1999 class of Super Bowl ads and arguably the most controversial Super Bowl ad of all time, Just For Feet’s running shoe commercial is truly a sight to behold, but for all the wrong reasons. The ad’s slavery subtext is undeniable, as it features four white men “hunting” a Kenyan runner in order to force him into wearing American sneakers (oh and they also drug him for good measure). The ad was labelled as both extremely racist and imperialist, prompting Just for Feet to sue the advertising agency that created the campaign. There was at least some karmic justice in the end, as Just for Feet ended up filing for bankruptcy protection later that year, with company executives later pleading guilty to accounting fraud.