Marketing used to be simple. Way back in the day, Coca-Cola advertised itself by proclaiming that “no fountain beverage ever increased in popularity so rapidly.” These quaint pleas for attention have evolved into sophisticated lifestyle pitches over the past century, driven by psychological research, slick production values and creativity.
Modern advertising often focuses more on linking products to emotional fulfillment, success, beauty and other notions that have little to do with the quality of the product being sold.
Companies use marketing events such as contests, parties and publicity stunts in addition to internet, print and television advertising to create buzz and a positive reputation for their goods and services. When an idea catches on, it can spread like wildfire, such as the recent social media success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or the ubiquitous, long-term media blanket applied by giant companies such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Campaigns are designed to capture the attention of as many people as possible, so when they go wrong, these marketing failures can result in hilarious, expensive and even dangerous consequences that can destroy the reputation of a brand.
10. Jagermeister Bombs At Pool Party
In the spirit of the long-cherished rowdy, youthful tradition of jagerbombs, the marketers at Jagermeister decided to kick their promotion into overdrive at a pool party-themed event in Mexico. Organisers had the unfortunate idea to add liquid nitrogen to the swimming pool in order to create a smoke effect at the party.
The whole thing caused plenty of excitement, but not in the way the party planners had intended – the newly formed mixture of chlorine and liquid nitrogen created a noxious gas, which began to asphyxiate revellers, as one by one they passed out in the pool with one unfortunate reveller slipping into a coma.
9. McDonald’s 1984 Olympics Contest Feeds the United States for Free
Wanting to solidify their identity as one of the most American things on Earth, McDonald’s decided to run a contest during the 1984 Olympics that focused on linking the Olympic victories of the United States with free Big Macs, french fries and soft drinks.
A U.S. gold medal earned customers a Big Mac, a silver medal produced free fries and bronze gave customers a free soft drink.
The timing of their promotion couldn’t have been worse. As a political statement, the Soviet Union withdrew from the 1984 summer Olympics, removing the United States’ biggest athletic rival. Thus, the U.S. won much more than initially expected during the 1984 olympics: 147 medals, including 83 gold medals, resulting in stores nearly running out of Big Macs and one hell of a blown marketing budget.
8. J.P. Morgan Twitter #Fail
Twitter has seen its fair share of terrible marketing failures, but one of the first companies to fail in a spectacular manner was J.P. Morgan. After dozens of news reports and documentaries outlined the shadowy behaviour of Wall St. financial institutions, the bank decided to start an #AskJPM hashtag. It was intended for anyone who wanted to ask one of their top executives a question, presumably to take advantage of the marketing clout of social media.
Almost immediately, the twitterverse descended upon the brand, asking dozens of questions that pointed to immoral financial activities that contributed to failure in the markets. The bank soon admitted the hashtag was a bad idea, perhaps after a tweet stating, “I have mortgage fraud, market manipulation, credit card abuse, libor rigging and predatory lending AM I DIVERSIFIED? #AskJPM”.
7. New Coke Loses the Cola Wars
Coca-Cola spent over a century battling to maintain brand supremacy over Pepsi, a fight that transcended social classes, politics and even race relations in the United States. Coca-Cola decided to grow their share by debuting “New Coke”, a concoction that apparently outperformed both Pepsi and Coca-Cola Classic in blind taste tests.
However, by releasing a new version of their flagship beverage, Coca-Cola implicitly admitted that their company lost the cola wars with Pepsi by giving up on the classic recipe. After untold millions spent researching, developing, testing and branding “New Coke”, the company re-released their old formula as Coca-Cola Classic, winning back the hearts and minds of sugary-drink fans around the world.
6. Pepsi Fails In The Philippines
In a giveaway designed to attract attention to the brand, Pepsi held a bottle cap contest for sugar-water aficionados in the Philippines, with the grand-prize winner enjoying a million-peso payout for possessing the correct number under the cap.
However, Pepsi accidentally declared “349” as the winning number – it was a number printed on 800,000 bottlecaps.
The country was in ecstasy, with over 480,000 winners lining up to claim their prize at the bottling factory. Predictably, Pepsi refused to pay and fortified their facilities with barbed wire, resulting in demonstrations that united Philippine residents more than any other public issue, political, social or otherwise. Anti-Pepsi coalitions sprung up and delivery vans were routinely attacked. During one of the protests, one citizen promised that “even if I die here, my ghost will come to fight Pepsi”, which is the exact opposite goal of any marketing campaign.
5. Microsoft Presents the Blue Screen of Death on CNN
During the 1990s, Microsoft grew into an especially dominant force in the corporate world, supplying Windows operating systems to the vast majority of America’s big businesses.
So of course, a great deal of excitement hung in the air when the upcoming Windows 98 operating system promised great advances in productivity and user-friendly design. It was such a big deal that Microsoft managed to debut Windows 98 live on CNN, an amazing marketing coup for any business.
However, when a scanner was plugged into the computer in an attempt to showcase the plug-and-play feature, the “blue screen of death” made an appearance in front of a live national audience, prompting applause and Bill Gates to quip, “that must be why we’re not shipping Windows 98 yet.” Although the operating system went on the become wildly successful, the gaffe still lives on in the psyche of the internet almost 20 years later.
4. Hong Kong Will (Literally) Take Your Breath Away
In 2003, the world’s attention was focused on this epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome spreading throughout the globe. Earlier in the year, before the outbreak garnered widespread attention, the Hong Kong tourist board developed and released a series of ads with the most unfortunate tagline, “Hong Kong will take your breath away.”
By the time the ads were released, SARS was in full swing with over 100 people passing away due to the disease and over 3,000 cases diagnosed around the world. Shortness of breath is one of the main symptoms of SARS, and the disease started in China before spreading to the rest of the world through Hong Kong. The tourist board tried to remove the ads during the outbreak, but it was too late.
3. United Way Charity Balloons Destroy Cleveland
The United Way decided to set the world record for the largest bloom of balloons ever released by filling 1.5 million balloons with helium and releasing them in Cleveland. The swarm floated along pleasantly, dazzling onlookers, before a storm arrived, pushing the 1.5 million balloons prematurely down to earth.
Soon, Cleveland’s air space was littered with clouds of balloons, resulting in the death of two people when the Coast Guard was unable to fly a rescue mission, made even worse due to waters filled with bobbing balloons that made it difficult to locate the victims.
Instead of a creating a fundraising opportunity, the United Way created death and millions of dollars in lawsuits for the city, as well as an environmental disaster.
2. Malaysia Air Bucket List Contest
The terrible fates of Malaysia Air Flight 370, AirAsia Flight QZ8501 and Malaysia Air Flight 17 led to a total of 986 passengers and crew losing their lives during 2014, a significant rise from the 265 airline deaths suffered in 2013.
Somehow, a seemingly sociopathic marketer’s pitch, the idea of an “ultimate bucket list” contest, was accepted by an equally callous creative director. Both, apparently, thought it was a good idea to build a contest to win a flight on the notorious Malaysian airlines around the question, “what do you want to do with your life before you die?” At best, the campaign was completely tactless; at worst, it was an attempt to earn publicity from the deaths of 537 people aboard their jets.
After public backlash, the airline apologised and renamed the competition.
1. Ayds: The Weight Loss Candy
A marketing disaster decades in the making, Ayds was a popular weight-loss candy created and produced since the 1930s. The product was popular enough to draw huge celebrities at the time, including endorsements from Zsa Zsa Gabor.
However, after 40 years of success, Ayds had a problem: the rise of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Despite the increasing concern surrounding the increasing devastation wrought by AIDS, the manufacturer refused to acknowledge the homonym, using tag lines such as “Ayds helps control your appetite”, “Ayds helped me get back into a size 6” and, even worse, “Why take diet pills when you can enjoy Ayds?”