10 of the Most Controversial Ad Campaigns

With so much information being thrust upon us on a daily basis, particularly with the prevalence of the internet and the advertising that abounds, it’s no surprise that advertisements have changed shape in the online age for the sake of grabbing people’s attention more effectively and ensuring that the advertisement and its associated product will be chosen out of all the others.

Some companies have captured the attention of the public with thoughtful bent they’ve imbued their advertising with while others have merely strived for shock value that has at least taken the public by surprise and garnered some sort of dramatic reaction.

While Dove has incited both a sense of irony and appreciation for their True Beauty advertisements that premiered 10 years ago, PETA has borne the brunt of numerous controversies for the rawness of its imagery and the extreme to which the organization seems willing to go to fight for the rights of animals.  From advertisements that utilized the most familiar of attention grabbing devices to those that exhibited a cleverness that didn’t quite work as they’d imagined, the following have captured the public’s interest, good or bad, and created some advertising that has made itself known.

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10 Real Beauty – Dove

Dove’s now familiar True Beauty campaign received much controversy and even relief upon its release and their recent Real Beauty campaign that was released in 2013 has stirred up a similar response. An ad that went viral, Real Beauty depicted a sketch artist who invites a series of women up to a loft to talk about themselves, where he then draws two images of them, one of how they look based on a stranger’s interpretation and another of how they look based on their own perceptions. While the ad seems to illuminate quite well the vast difference between the way women see themselves and the way others see them, the campaign also received a lot of flack for being a beauty brand that, however responsibly, still plays on women’s desire to be attractive.

9 Spicy BBQ Six Dollar Burger - Carl’s Jr.

This American fast food restaurant chain has opted to heat up the reputation of their burgers with not just one ad campaign, but several featuring the likes of Paris Hilton, Kate Upton and Kim Kardashian that indulgently embrace a host of scantily clad women.  In a blatant attempt to make burger’s seem sexy, the Spicy BBQ Six Dollar Burger ads shows socialite Paris Hilton sultrily washing a car in a flashy bikini as she eats a Spicy BBQ Six Dollar Burger. While Carl’s Jr. certainly wasn’t the first nor will they be the last to exploit a women’s sexuality to sell something, they created a bit more fervour for the celebrities they used and the overt transparency of their execution.

8 Winning Takes Care of Everything – Tiger Woods

While everyone is aware of the downfall that golfer Tiger Woods faced in the public eye after his numerous extra-marital affairs were revealed in late 2010, the nature in which Nike capitalized on it wasn’t necessarily popular with the public. Created in 2013, the ad shows Tiger Woods with golf club in hand with the overlaid words “Winning Takes Care of Everything” which was released after Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational. While the golfer has since managed to regain some of the steam he lost in recent years, many believed the advertisement to be in poor taste for its implication that Wood’s sins could be forgotten with a few good wins.

7 Unhate - United Colors of Benetton

Launched by the global fashion brand on November 16th, 2011, the Unhate campaign was the brainchild of United Colors of Benetton who was hoping to foster a sense of union and world integration through its advertisements. While the idea seems uncontroversial enough, it was brought into being through a series of posters that showed famous political figures at diametric odds kissing, including Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez as well as Pope Benedict XVI and Ahmed Muhammad Ahmed el-Tayeb. While United Colors of Benetton stood by the message of the ads, the campaign was not appreciated by all and Benetton Group decided to remove the offending image of Pope Benedict XVI after The Vatican threated legal action.


Owned by Gruppo Campari, SKYY Vodka is another company that has been synonymous with very suggestive and deceivingly sleek advertising that has managed to make a few tongues wag, but their SKYY SEXY advertisement took the cake as one of the most blatant in the company’s history. Released in 2010, the ad featured a pair of red, patent leather, spike heeled boots wrapped around a SKYY Vodka bottle, which did not so much exist as an allusion to sex but a nearly complete execution of it. While SKYY’s ads have always been sleek and stylish, they’ve received much blow back for the consistent representation of women as submissive and merely ornamental in their advertisements.

5 Fashion Junkie - Sisley

Originally thought up by high fashion Italian clothing brand Sisley, this advertisement was quite controversial for its thinly veiled glamorization of drug use. While the fashion industry is laid with claims of a highfalutin life in the first place, Sisley’s series of Fashion Junkie ads released in 2007 did little to dispel this by showing two models hover over a t-shirt, with the thin strap of it appearing like a line of cocaine as they attempt to ingest it. As the ad goes beyond the merely suggestive, it was criticized for the impact it could have on young girls who look up to fashion brands and celebrity icons as an example of something they should want or be like.

4 Pipe Job – Hyundai Europe

As the fourth largest automobile manufacturer in the world, Hyundai received much criticism for its 2013 Pipe Job ad campaign that was created by Innocean Europe. Drawing questionably on the topic of suicide, the advertisement shows a hose leading into the window of a car as a man sits inside, waiting for the noxious fumes to fill the garage and kill him. While the goal of the ad was to make consumers aware that the Hyundai ix35 released 100% water emissions, the fact that the man got up and left the garage at the end of the ad was not comforting enough to viewers who found it severely insensitive to those struggling with mental health issues. The ad didn’t see much television light in any case and was cancelled after just one week.

3 Meet Lauren Phoenix - American Apparel

Though American Apparel has frequently come up against criticism for their ads, the brand really captured the attention of the public in 2005 with their all but transparent advertisement for something as seemingly simple as tube socks. Featuring the pornographic film actress Lauren Phoenix, the ad shows Phoenix hiding her near nakedness behind a pair of fluffy tube socks, with inset photos showing her face as she supposedly conveys her excitement. While the company often opts to gain the approval of their fans with their tongue-in-cheek ‘tude, the approach that many of their ads have displayed towards women has left people wondering how progressive they really are.

2 Felicia the Goat, Part 3 - Mountain Dew

Released in April 2013, this ad for Mountain Dew that was created by hip-hop artist Tyler, The Creator of Odd Future featured the familiar Felicia the Goat and is considered by some to be one of the most offensive advertisements in history. Set at a police station, the ad shows a police officer that is encouraging a white woman to pick her attacker from a police line-up that consists of a group of black men and Felicia the Goat. While taunts coming from the crazy Mountain Dew drinking goat clearly make him the perpetrator, the ad relied on offensive racial stereotypes that made author and political analyst Boyce Watkins refer to it as “arguably the most racist commercial in history.”

1 Holocaust on Your Plate - PETA

While People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been another organization that offends with many of their ad campaigns, they outdid themselves in 2003 with the Holocaust on Your Plate ad campaign. Featuring eight 60 square foot panels, the campaign juxtaposed images of the Holocaust with those of factory-farmed animals, likening the Holocaust to the everyday plight of animals that are bred for consumption in squalid living conditions. While the campaign was funded by a Jewish philanthropist, it received numerous criticism for its likening of two things that most people felt were quite disparate in nature.

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