25 Disastrous Marketing Fails That Actually Happened

Posted by , Updated on September 19, 2022

Marketing teams are tasked with the difficult job of grabbing your attention and convincing you to buy stuff. In years past, many have succeeded in creating effective and compelling marketing campaigns for businesses. But every once in a while, they get it horribly wrong. It can be pretty devastating. While great ads can lift a company up, awful ads can easily destroy it. This can result in serious brand damage, profit loss, and in rare cases, bankruptcy. You can probably think of a few, but what are the worst of the worst? Here are the 25 disastrous marketing fails that actually happened.

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DiGiorno #whyIstayed Campaign

DiGiornoSource: http://time.com

After NFL player Ray Rice was suspended for beating his wife, Twitter blew up with a #WhyIStayed trend. Thousands of women spoke out about why they stayed in their abusive relationship. So, in a foolish attempt to stay relevant, DiGiorno pizza hopped on the hashtag trend, not to share their own story, but to sell pizza. Turns out, the company didn’t take the time to understand what the hashtag was about and just fired off, “#WhyIStayed You had pizza.” Once they figured out their error, they deleted the tweet and profusely apologized. Still, might be smart to look into the hashtags before using them.



U2 Free Album

U2Source: http://www.independent.co.uk

Apple and U2 have had a strong relationship together since their early beginnings in the 1980’s. With the release of the iPhone 6, they both thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we just gave away U2’s new album to all iPhone owners?” Turns out, it wasn’t so great. It was quickly mocked online with people comparing it to music spam. It was such a problem that Apple developed an entire instruction page on how to remove the music if someone wanted to. (It apparently wasn’t an easy process.)


Lipitor Malpractice Ad

LipitorSource: http://articles.chicagotribune.com

In a Lipitor ad, a man by the name of Dr. Jarvik appears on the screen and claims to be a doctor. A big part of the ad hinges on his credibility as a professional recommendation. However, it turned out “Dr. Jarvik” never practiced medicine in his life and never held a medical license. Pfizer quickly pulled the ad after being investigated for malpractice.


Walmart Bakes ISIS Cake

Walmart_exteriorSource: http://abcnews.go.com

A man went into a Walmart to have a cake made with the Confederate flag on it with the words, “Heritage not hate.” The bakery denied his request. Later, the man went to the same Walmart and requested a cake be made with the ISIS battleflag. They made it. Of course, the man was outraged. Walmart apologized, claiming the baker didn’t know what the flag represented. The real question is: What birthday were these cakes for?


God of War II Animal Abuse Fail

god of warSource: http://kotaku.com

To create a lot of buzz and capture the violent tone and feel of God of War II, Sony rolled the dice and decided to throw a huge party with the dead carcass of a goat included. Better yet, guests reached inside the goat’s still-warm gut and ate offal (organ meats) from its stomach. When word got out in the media, animal rights activists had a field day. Sony quickly apologized.


Starbucks Encourages Race Discussions

StarbucksSource: https://blog.printsome.com

Thinking their baristas are not only brewers of delicious coffee but also ambassadors for peace, Starbucks encouraged customers to discuss race with them after the baristas wrote “Race Together” on each coffee cup. The campaign ruffled a few feathers. Turns out most people don’t want to talk about a touchy subject right as they get their coffee.


Subway Sexy Halloween Costume Backfire

SubwaySource: http://www.adweek.com

Subway’s core message has always been they’re the healthier fast food option. One of their ads in 2014 tried to push this message by encouraging women to look sexy in their Halloween costumes by eating their food. Let’s just say it didn’t go over too well. Once it got massive negative attention, Subway pulled the ad.


SanDisk iSheep Campaign

SansaSource: http://www.pcmag.com

With the iPod becoming a worldwide phenomenon, SanDisk tried to push back and compete against Apple’s popular product. However, they went about it the wrong way. Calling it iSheep, they mocked anyone who had an iPod as sheep. The ads didn’t win over anyone who had an iPod and the cruel campaign only brought them negative press and ridicule.


Esurance Billboard Gets a Double Take

EsuranceSource: http://www.adweek.com

By all accounts, the Esurance billboard was totally fine. With a purple background and big white text, it read, “cover your home in a click.” The problem came when the font was too close together, blurring the lines of some of the words. Many people thought it said, “cover your home in a dick.” It spread over the internet and Esurance was quick to take the billboard down.


Spirit Airlines Photo Scandal Campaign

Spirit AirlinesSource: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/240696

Spirit Airlines is known for going low in their ticket prices, but this marketing campaign took it to a whole new level. After a celebrity nude photo hacking scandal spread online involving Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and Rihanna, Spirit Airlines decided to use the media storm to their advantage. Their ad read, “Our bare fare was hacked!” while showing a drawing of a woman covering herself up. Yeah, it was pretty much the definition of tasteless.


Nordstrom's Hanukkah Sweater Backfire

chai maintenanceSource: http://www.chicagotribune.com/

After releasing a faux ugly Hanukkah sweater, Nordstrom immediately went under fire for its offensive portrayal of Jewish women, claiming it perpetuates negative stereotypes. The sweater had the words “Chai Maintenance” on the front. Chai is the Hebrew word for “High.” Once the outrage swirled Facebook, Nordstrom took notice and pulled the sweater from their lineup.


Holiday Inn Super Bowl Ad

Holiday InnSource: http://www.seohosting.com

Holiday Inn was undergoing major changes and wanted to advertise it to customers. However, they made the poor decision of comparing their changes to the changes of a transexual. It was tasteless and played for laughs in a clever wink and a nudge. Needless to say, it was poorly received


Just For Feet Racist Ad

Athletic_tennis_shoesSource: http://www.cbsnews.com

Just For Feet had huge ambitions. They wanted to be an athletic shoe superstore and put all their hopes on a Super Bowl ad in 1999. Believing the ad would rocket their business, Just For Feet had no idea it would do the exact opposite. The ad featured four white men hunting down a barefoot Kenyan runner, knocking him out, and forcing Just For Feet shoes on him. The ad was decried as imperialistic and racist. Just For Feet became known as a racist company. Soon after, they filed a lawsuit against the ad agency but eventually, the lawsuit was dropped and Just For Feet filed for bankruptcy. The last store closed in 2004.


Urban Outfitters Kent State University Fail

Urban_OutfittersSource: http://www.adweek.com

Urban Outfitters released a vintage sweater with faux dirt and blood on it. The problem? It has the “Kent State University” logo on it. Kent State University was the site of 1970’s protests where the National Guard fired on unarmed war activities, killing four and injuring nine others. Urban Outfitters claimed they weren’t trying to make that connection but pulled the shirt from their lineup anyway.


BP Oil Spill Ad Fail

BP oil spillSource: http://www.huffingtonpost.com

After the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, BP decided to do damage control, spending $50 million on advertising with their CEO apologizing, claiming they’d clean up the mess and fix the problem. It only poured more salt on the wound, getting slammed by the media and President Obama for spending millions on advertising rather than cleaning up the mess and helping compensate people for lost jobs.


Bloomingdales Date Rape Ad

Bloomingdale'sSource: http://fortune.com

During the Holidays, the last thing you want to do is scare off any customers. Bloomingdales clearly didn’t get the memo. In one of their ads, a man with an eerie demeanor is looking from behind as a woman looks off to the side smiling. The ad read, “Spike your best friend’s egg nog when they’re not looking.” Not soon after, the internet blew up with rage, decrying the ad as a promotion for date rape.


Groupon Super Bowl Ad

Groupon_logoSource: http://abcnews.go.com

In 2011, Groupon released a Super Bowl ad about Tibet. At first, it looked like a serious piece on the plight of the Tibetan people. However, in the second half, it turned into a fun, jaunty ad talking about how great their curry is. The uproar was swift and quick, with people upset that Groupon would make light of a suffering country.


Under Armour's Battle of the Ballers T-Shirt

iwo jima statueSource: https://www.washingtonpost.com

Under Armour released a t-shirt with the silhouette of basketball players lifting a basketball hoop up like the iconic Battle of Iwo Jima photo, calling it “Battle of the Ballers.” Critics lashed out against the shirt, saying the company was making light of American veterans.


Susan Boyle's Twitter Mishap

Susan_BoyleSource: theguardian.com

Susan Boyle’s marketing team tried to use a hashtag campaign to bring attention to her new album. However, they may have wanted to take a second to think through the hashtag #susanalbumparty. We’ll let you figure out what went wrong.


Ogilvy India Ad

Ogilvy-Logo.svgSource: http://www.businessinsider.com

The mattress company Ogilvy India ran an ad showing Malala Yousafzai getting shot, falling to a Kurl-On mattress, and then bouncing upward to the girl fighting for girls’ education. Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban before becoming an education rights activist. Let’s just say using her horrific story to sell mattresses didn’t go over well.


Life Alert's Terrifying Ad

life alert pendantSource: http://www.adweek.com

Life Alert takes their business very, very seriously. In an attempt to scare people into buying their product, they aired an ad of an old lady at the bottom of the stairs, unable to get up, screaming. So terrifying were the ads that people flocked to the company’s Facebook page to complain. Life Alert stated, however, they felt the ends justify the means; people should be aware of the seriousness of letting their loved ones be helpless without their product.


Dr. Pepper Treasure Hunt

dr pepperSource: http://www.foxnews.com/story/2007/02/24/dr-pepper-1-million-coin-advertising-stunt-leads-boston-to-close-historic-site.html

As a promotion, Dr. Pepper suggested there might be a $1 million coin in the Boston Granary Burial Ground, the final resting place of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and other national figures. Terrified treasure hunters would come out to destroy the site, the city shut it down and criticized the company for a cheap, disrespectful publicity stunt.


Levis Controversial Body Image Ad

Levi'sSource: http://www.christianpost.com/news/levis-new-curve-ad-sparks-controversy-70155/

Levi’s released an ad trying to push a positive body image message saying, “hotness comes in all shapes and sizes.” However, the three models in their ad only showed people with slim figures, not representing the average person. An ad watchdog blog quickly denounced the ad, saying it didn’t represent any women over a size six.


Heinz QR code

ketchupSource: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jun/19/heinz-ketchup-qr-code-links-porn

When you scan a QR code on a Heinz ketchup bottle, chances are the last thing you’re expecting to find is a porn website. But that’s exactly what happened to one man who scanned a German Heinz ketchup bottle, being taken to a porn site rather than the main Heinz page. Heinz apologized to the man by giving him a personalized ketchup bottle.


Pepsi Ad Trivializing Black Lives Matter

pepsiSource: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/business/kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad.html

Recently, in 2017, Pepsi aired an ad featuring protestors going up against police officers. Then, Kendall Jenner walks up to the police, handing them a Pepsi can as if that’ll solve everyone’s problems. Shortly after, it got raked over the coals online for making light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Pepsi quickly apologized and pulled the ad, saying their intention was to promote unity, peace, and understanding.


Enjoy this post? You’ll also want to check out 25 Publicity Stunts Gone Horribly Wrong.

Photos: 25. Mike Mozart via flickr. CC BY 2.0 , 24. The original uploader was Wikipedia brown at English Wikipedia, 2005-11-21 U2 @ MSG by ZG, CC BY 2.5, 23. Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose via flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0. , 22. see Image talk:Walmart exterior.jpg This file was made by User:Sven Translation If this image contains text, it can be translated easily into your language. If you need help, contact me Flexible licenses If you want to use this picture with another license than stated below, contact me Contact the author If you need a really fast answer, mail me. If you need only a fast answer, write me here., Walmart exterior, CC BY-SA 3.0, 21. SS Games Online via flickr. CC BY 2.0, 20. Faye from Liverpool, England, Starbucks (5087437448), CC BY 2.0, 19. Andrevruas, Subway2, CC BY 3.0, 18. Hinrik, Sansa clip plus 8gb black, CC BY-SA 3.0, 17. Wikipedia Commons.com (Public Domain), 16. JT Occhialini, Spirit Airlines Airbus A319 (N503NK) landing at FLL, CC BY-SA 2.0, 15. Amazon (fair use: product photo; illustrative purposes only, no free source available.) 14. George NOTE: This is my photo, gamweb, Holiday Inn Express Daytona Beach Shores (5411717409), CC BY 2.0, 13. Knixon4, Athletic tennis shoes, CC BY-SA 4.0, 12. Wikipedia Commons.com (Public Domain), 11. Wikipedia Commons.com (Public Domain), 10. Jonathan71, Bloomingdale’s1, CC BY-SA 3.0, 9. Wikipedia Commons.com (Public Domain), 8. Beverly & Pack via flickr,  CC BY 2.0, 7. Wasforgas, Susan Boyle, CC BY-SA 3.0, 6. Wikipedia commons.com (Public Domain), 5. Life Alert (fair use: illustrative purposes only; no free sources available.) 4. Don vito 666, Dr Pepper puszka 2014, CC BY-SA 4.0, 3. M62, Levi’s 506 label, CC BY-SA 3.0, 2. Mike Mozart via flickr. CC BY 2.0 , 1. Gareth Simpson via flickr. CC BY 2.0 

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