When dealing with the public at large on a global scale, it’s impossible to avoid the occasional controversy. As consumers, these situations serve to remind us that, behind the wheel, beneath the glitzy advertising and inside those Manhattan skyscrapers, companies are still run by human beings. People who are fault-filled and problem-prone, just like the rest of us.
For the most part, things run smoothly. There are processes in place to weed out sources of controversy. Product development, testing and advertising focus groups stem the growth of a large portion of ads and products that would court trouble if they were left to mature. There are occasions, though, where the advice yielded by these processes is disregarded or unsolicited.
We can take a look at popular clothing manufacturer American Apparel for an easily discernible example. American Apparel has long projected itself into the public eye by using images many find tasteless or outright offensive. Its stock and trade is shock and awe. By harnessing the power of controversy, it has maintained a secure foothold in the industry and, again and again, elevated its position within it.
Many companies, however, fall inadvertently into the pit of controversy. They find themselves, unawares, on the receiving end of negative publicity after it is too late to rein in and utilize the spotlight. These situations typically end with an abrupt about-face, panicked apologies, and full refunds all around. Such was the case in 1997, when Mattel was on the receiving end of bad press after releasing an African American version of their Oreo Fun Barbie line.
Here, we will focus our attention on the latter. We will look at companies that may have set out with a heart full of good intentions, but ended up with a earful of bitter criticisms. From accused “murder simulators” to dolls living in cardboard boxes, here's a look at five wildly controversial products.
5 The Witch Hunt Over Manhunt
Another company undeterred by controversy, Rockstar Games’ Manhunt was an attention magnet from the word “go.” Known for its violent imagery, the game puts players in the shoes of a former death row inmate who is compelled to commit a series of increasingly brutal acts to secure his freedom.
While it received mostly positive reviews — and comparisons to ultraviolent classic A Clockwork Orange — many critics felt that the game’s disturbing content would ultimately overshadow the value of its gameplay. In fact, the game was a point of contention even amongst Rockstar Games’ staff, who stated that “there was almost a mutiny” over the game and that working on it “just made [them] all feel icky.”
To make matters worse, on July 28, 2004, the game was pulled off store shelves in the UK when it was briefly implicated in the murder of Stefan Pakeerah. Eventually, police refuted the link between Manhunt and Pakeerah’s death, though not before anti-video-game activist and disbarred attorney Jack Thompson shoehorned his way into the media spotlight to say that he had warned Rockstar about the potential dangers of their “murder simulator.”
4 J.C. Penney’s Hitler Teakettle
If one were to assemble a list of former political leaders that should not serve as the basis of inspiration for commercial products, Adolf Hitler would — without doubt — trend towards the top of that list. Regrettably, J.C. Penney found itself in a difficult position when world-renowned architect Michael Graves accidentally designed a teapot that resembled the former German dictator.
As if this tragic faux pas wasn’t enough, the company erected a series of billboards in the Los Angeles area promoting the ill-conceived kettle. The public was quick to make the association, tabloid news was quick to run with the story and local politicians were quick to take umbrage at what they assumed to be the teapot’s unseemly inspiration.
In short order, the teapot was removed from stores and the billboards were taken down, however, the product had already sold out online and in many physical stores. J.C. Penney, hoping to parlay the negative attention into positive publicity, released a statement assuring the public that the resemblance was “certainly unintended. If we'd designed the kettle to look like something, we would've gone with a snowman or something fun.”
3 Urban Outfitters’ Prescription Shot Glass
Hardly known for being a company geared towards making tactful decisions, if Urban Outfitters knows how to sell one thing, it’s controversy. Regularly derided for releasing T-shirts with purportedly tasteless images and slogans, the company is no stranger to criticism and definitely not a mere visitor in the land of questionable products.
Last year, though, Urban Outfitters may have crossed the line. Releasing a line of mugs and shot glasses designed to look like prescription pill bottles, the company was denounced for making light of alcoholism and prescription drug abuse. Seldom apologetic, the company released a statement saying, “we recognize that from time to time there may be individual items that are misinterpreted by people who are not our customer.”
Regardless, Urban Outfitters opted to discontinue the line, causing Steve Pasierb, the CEO of The Partnership at Drugfree.org to commend the company for “doing the right thing.”
2 Harry Potter And The Vibrating Broom
As a children’s toy company, when sex shops start selling your products, you know something has gone horribly awry in the product development cycle.
Such was the case for Mattel in 2011 when they found out that their vibrating Harry Potter Nimbus 2000 broomstick was being sold to an adult audience for twice its suggested retail price. Shocked mothers on Amazon lashed out, urging potential buyers to “Keep the batteries out!” lest their children have “a more than sensational experience.” And though it may be an established fact that mothers tend to overreact when it comes to the well-being of their children, their outcry does beg the question of whether or not the Nimbus 2000 actually endured any kind of product testing.
While it’s obvious that Mattel didn’t design the toy with adult experiences in mind, the company’s development oversight went viral, with some websites going so far as to call the Nimbus 2000 “a personal vibrator for kids.” Ultimately, many online retailers — including Amazon — ceased to carry the broomstick and deleted the slew of unsavory reviews the product had garnered.
1 Homeless American Girl Doll
Gwen Thompson’s had a hard life. Her father lost his job and ran out on the family. Her and her mother were forced to live in a car. To top it all off, she became the victim of teenaged cyberbullies, was dubbed “Loser Girl,” and had to sell her prized violin. Oh, and also she’s a doll.
Known for their intricately detailed histories, American Girl dolls have captured the imaginations of young girls since 1986. With dolls depicting characters from a wide range of historical periods, the aim of the product line is to teach children about American history via a series of books that accompany each of their dolls.
In 2009, however, the company received some flak when they released Gwen Thompson, a homeless doll intended to teach children the value of tolerance. With 1.5 million homeless children in America, advocacy groups perceived the $95 doll as an indecorous addition to the American Girl line. Livid opponents argued that the doll’s story was “just plain offensive” and called on Mattel — owner of the line — to donate the proceeds from sales of Gwen Thompson to relevant charities.