Try as they may, every year, a handful of marketers just can’t avoid rolling out completely terrible ad campaigns.
Whether a tone-deaf message or ads with glaring racist slants, such gaffes are not necessarily reserved for smaller marketer with little to no creative counsel. As 2017 showed, this sort of thing can just as easily happen to big name brands with huge budgets.
As the year winds down, we look back at some of the most cringe-worthy ads by marketers that should have frankly known better.
Oh and we’re grading them too, just for fun.
It’s not all grim, check out the Best Ads of 2017 here.
10. Volkswagen’s “Luv Bug” spot (Grade: C)
It’s been a rough couple of years for the German auto maker post its emission scandal, and the company seems to have lost not just its credibility, but also its creativity. You probably haven’t seen a more literal ad on your TV screens this year, with a couple expanding the size of their car as they expand their family. As the family grows, the Beetle gets swapped out for progressively bigger cars, including the Jetta and the Atlas. No points for creativity for this one.
9. Netflix’s “Christmas Prince” tweet (Grade: C-)
Netflix is usually a savvy marketer – and even landed a spot in our Best ads of 2017 list. But it seems that even the best and the brightest run out of original ideas sometimes. The streaming giant thought it could take a page out of Spotify’s playbook, using its viewership data to fuel a quirky marketing campaign on Twitter for the holiday season. Except, it totally backfired and people thought it was rather creepy.
“While there are some pros to copycat campaign marketing, it cannot be an integral part of a successful, long-term strategy,” said Jerome Maisch, director of product strategy at Digimind. “These days, loyalists want their favorite brands to be unique and different – something that cannot be achieved by copying other brands’ marketing strategies on social and beyond.”
To the 53 people who've watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?
— Netflix US (@netflix) December 11, 2017
8. Sprint’s incessant trolling of Verizon (Grade: C-)
Some people may champion brands taking potshots at their competitors, but it’s unimaginative, and frankly, comes off as lazy. Sprint has emerged as the king of such ads in recent years, relentlessly taking digs at Verizon. This ad, for example, is for a mock store called “Twice the Price,” with Sprint calling out Verizon for charging “twice the price.”
7. Uber’s surge-pricing tweet (Grade: D)
It was a pretty disastrous year for Uber overall, with its company’s image enduring a huge series of hits for multiple reasons. But its marketing was no saving grace either, and was in fact what kickstarted the downfall. Customer frustration with Uber first peaked back in January after the ride-sharing company appeared to try to profit off a taxi strike, deciding to eliminate surge pricing at JFK after the New York Taxi Workers Alliance went on strike to oppose President Trump’s immigration ban. Within a few hours, the hashtag #DeleteUber had gathered steam and people had started removing the app from their phones. Uber issued an apology and its ousted former CEO Travis Kalanick detailed the company’s stance on immigration. But the company didn’t take any further steps to support its position.
6. Adidas’ Boston Marathon email gaffe (Grade: F)
- Twitter/Mike Denison
Adidas came under fire earlier this year for perhaps the most poorly worded marketing email in history. The sports brand sent out an email congratulating runners who “survived” the Boston Marathon with the subject of the email reading: “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” People were outraged and critics slammed the email as insensitive in the wake of the 2013 bombing at the same marathon that killed three people and wounded dozens more. Adidas tried to make amends by sending out an apology email to the recipients of the original email.
5. Kaiewei Ni’s ‘scrollbait’ Instagram Stories ad (Grade: D)
You’ve heard of clickbait. But Chinese sneaker manufacturer Kaiwei Ni took things to the next level and introduced audiences to scrollbait. The ad was designed to look as if there was a stray hair in the middle of your phone screen, with its aim being to trick Instagram users into swiping up on it and ending up on the brand’s website by accident. The ad was promptly removed by Instagram, which said that it violated the platform’s policies in a statement to The Verge. The account was also disabled from advertising on the platform. The ad was not ingenuous, it was just a tacky, cheap trick.
“Other than being gleefully hacky, it’s really deceptive (who knows if swiping up leads you to a page that tries to find a vulnerability in your phone?) and generally gross,” said Mike Janiak, VP of creative at Fluid. “Creative for sure, but in an awful way.”
4. McDonald’s ‘dead dad’ ad in the UK (Grade: D)
McDonald’s and Leo Burnett U.K. struck the wrong chord with this ad, which was slammed for exploiting child bereavement. The ad featured a boy’s mother telling him what his father was like, which makes him sad because they don’t seem to have much in common. Until he eats a Filet-O-Fish at McDonald’s, which of course his mother tells him was his dad’s favorite too. People found the ad so distasteful that the Advertising Standards Authority in the country received about a 100 complaints before McDonald’s decided to pull it.
3. Nivea’s “White is Purity” campaign (Grade: F-)
The idea behind Nivea’s “White is Purity” campaign in the Middle East was to tout Nivea’s invisible deodorant that doesn’t stain your clothes. But some copywriter clearly didn’t think through how racist it came across. Not only was it slammed online, but was also hijacked by white supremacists. Nivea quickly apologized.
“Any ad campaign with the tagline ‘White Is Purity’ is such a screaming no-no it’s hard to fathom it making it through levels of approvals with nobody stopping it along the way,” said Michael Mothner, founder and CEO of agency WPromote. “I have to assume that because it was a targeted campaign to a middle-eastern audience that it wouldn’t go noticed, which in today’s world of hyper-connectivity is an almost comical assumption.”
2. Dove’s ‘racist’ 3-second Facebook ad (Grade: F-)
Dove prompted massive outrage in October, when it posted a 3-second video on Facebook showing a black woman removing her top to reveal a white woman underneath. To the average viewer, the clip seemed to imply that for a black woman to be attractive, she’d need to lighten her skin. It not only left a bad taste in viewers’ mouths, but also tarnished Dove’s much-praised, pro-women marketing that it spent the past decade building. The beauty brand removed the clip and apologized, saying on Twitter that the post had “missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully.” The Unilever brand seems intent on not repeating the mistake again, and has instituted a new internal process for creating and evaluating ad creative.
1. Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner protest ad (Grade: F-)
When Pepsi debuted its topical commercial on protests earlier this year, never in a million years would it have imagined the disaster it would turn out to be. There was perhaps no ad as reviled as the sodamaker’s spot featuring Kendall Jenner as a model that leaves work to join a protest this year in 2017. Pepsi may have intended to share a message of peace and how similar tastes bring people together, but the ad was widely perceived as a ploy to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement for profit. It became a public relations disaster and never-ending nightmare for the brand, and a cautionary tale for others. While other marketers became wary of jumping on hot-button issues, ad agencies began making the case against taking advertising in-house.
“It was the biggest fuck-up of the year,” said Aimee Woodall, founder and president at cause-driven ad agency The Black Sheep Agency.