Insurer Nationwide’s decision to run an ad during the Super Bowl depicting the death of a child, due to a preventable accident in the home, triggered a divided response from viewers. The dominant reaction appeared to be anger at such a depressing message being presented on an evening considered by many, to be a time to relax and have fun.
For its part, Nationwide released a statement saying that it had been trying to start a debate about an important issue: the need to be aware of safety risks facing children in daily life. Nationwide wrote in its statement, “The sole purpose of this message was to start a conversation, not sell insurance. We want to build awareness of an issue that is near and dear to all of us — the safety and well-being of our children.”
Whatever your opinion on the episode, it demonstrates the immense power that advertising can have on people, and the severe consequences that can result from a company or organisation making a poor decision. The images transmitted in an ad and the reactions they provoke from viewers, can stick with a company for a long time, meaning that misjudging the expectations of the audience can have serious consequences. While in most cases it is possible to rectify the damage, some mistakes turn out to be so bad that the brand is no longer viable in the future. Below is a list of 10 of the worst advertising blunders ever made and the consequences for the firms involved.
Their toothpaste may be one of the best for cleaning your teeth, but that doesn’t translate into people buying a Colgate meal when they’re looking for something to eat. Marketers seemed to forget this when they proposed putting the Colgate brand on frozen meals in 1982. Although large amounts of money were spent on an advertising campaign to prepare the public for the new products, and a market for ready meals was growing, they failed spectacularly. The fact that it was the marketing strategy that cost the product was made even clearer when it was revealed that the Colgate frozen meals had actually performed better in taste tests against their competitors. If only they’d thought of giving them a different brand name…
9) New Coke
Coca Cola introduced the new formula in 1985, claiming it was an attempt to update its traditional soft drink. But the public thought differently, seeing the move as the company’s abandonment of its roots. Others interpreted it as an admission that Coca Cola was losing ground to Pepsi, which had become especially popular among younger consumers. Despite a rebranding attempt with the new formula labelled Coke II, Coca Cola eventually admitted defeat and reintroduced the original mixture under the name Coke Classic. As soon as this took place, McDonald’s announced it would switch back to selling Coke Classic, and sales increased.
The Hoover Company’s British division thought it would be a good idea to come up with an offer to clear out its surplus stock, so as to make more warehouse space available. So far, so good. But rather than a standard offer, the deal Hoover presented really was too good to pass buy. They stated that if customers bought more than £100 ($160) of appliances, they could have free airline tickets to a European destination. After some time, Hoover unbelievably decided to expand the offer to include tickets to the United States in the offer. Many people went out to buy appliances simply to get these tickets, which would have cost much more than £100 if bought normally. The company was involved in court cases until 1998, and the total cost to Hoover reached £50 million.
In what is maybe one of the most entertaining marketing fails, Panasonic sought to announce its presence in the computer world by branding its own equipment with the help of a popular cartoon character. The only problem was that with their choice of Woody, they named their touchscreen facility “touch woody” and their internet browser the “internet pecker.” These branding masterstrokes were combined into an ad with the slogan, “Touch Woody–the Internet Pecker.” After the intervention of officials raising concerns about the sexual connotations of the campaign, plan B hardly improved matters, with the screen being referred to as the “Woody touch screen.”
Circuit City, a technology company, conceived of DIVX as the thing of the future in the late 1990s, when it was still unclear what would follow the VHS recorder in home entertainment. Unfortunately, the millions invested into a relatively complex system that would only allow viewers to watch a movie for two days before having to pay for additional time, lost out in the battle with DVDs. Another major shortcoming of the DIVX system was its need to be connected to the internet, which at that time meant blocking your phone-line. Circuit City was forced to pay $114 million to wind up operations in 1999, following major losses in its first months of trading.
5) Burger King
A new ad agency was hired by Burger King in the early 2000s, to help give the company a revamp after years of slowly declining revenues. Their decision to bring back the King mascot was not an instantaneous disaster, but it didn’t produce a major turnaround either. The real problems started around 2008-09, when they began running ads with the King scaring people outside their bedroom windows and waking up in bed with them. In addition, Burger King sold a $190 burger in the UK, apparently to break out of the stereotype of a cheap fast food joint. The problem was that this stunt took place in the middle of the 2008 economic crisis, leaving many people alienated. In 2012, the result of these advertising blunders became clear when Burger King lost its number 2 place in the fast food rankings.
Skittles has always been known for producing entertaining commercials, and when in 2008 it came up with the idea of someone who turned everything to Skittles that he touched, the idea seemed to be a winner. That was before marketers decided to take it too far by having a man explain in a commercial how he could no longer hold on to his baby and how he had killed a man on the bus earlier in the day by shaking his hand. To some, it was another example of a funny Skittles ad, but in general, the campaign was a failure among consumers.
The computer giant was forced to react quickly to a backlash following an ad campaign in 2009, to promote the release of its new Internet Explorer 8 web browser. The commercial depicted a woman throwing up after seeing her husband’s web browsing history on his computer. Viewers complained to the company about the ad’s content, and a decision was taken shortly afterwards to pull it from broadcasting. Microsoft defended itself by saying that it had just been a “tongue-in-cheek look” at the functionality of in-private browsing on Internet Explorer. It argued that the audience response had been quite positive but that a minority had been unhappy with the campaign.
The release of its new logo in 2010 triggered a major crisis for Gap, when it was roundly denounced as un-inventive and outdated. Some criticized the decision to use a type of font that had been around for years, and was used by one of its main competitors, American Apparel. But even worse was the reaction to Gap’s subsequent call for members of the public to submit their own design ideas. Designers and design companies saw this as an attempt to produce a new logo for free, and there were even some accusations that the whole thing had been faked to produce a situation where a crowd-sourcing solution could be proposed with no cost to the company. Although this was never confirmed, the crisis was a timely reminder that no brand can take their customers for granted.
1) EA Games: Medal of Honor, War Fighter
Debates about violence on video games are always a hot topic, especially when their impact on real life is concerned. But even the most die-hard defenders of gun violence in gaming would have to acknowledge that EA went too far in 2012, when it advertised links on the website of its recently released Medal of Honor game that allowed users to purchase real weapons. All that was required was a credit card to conclude the transaction. Predictably, a horrified public reaction compelled the company to withdraw all advertising on the website. When the scandal came to light, at least eleven suppliers of real-life weaponry were listed on the partners page of its Medal of Honor website.