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12 Offensive Advertisements You Shouldn’t Mimic Under Any Circumstances

When it comes to advertising, there is plenty that can go wrong. Take a lesson from these well-known companies who messed up big time. Never forget one of the most important rules of advertising: don’t offend your audience. This will lead to angry complaints to the FTC, and you could lose loyal customers and all of the money that you invested in your ad campaign.

According to an Adweek Media/Harris Poll in 2010, more than one third of Americans will choose not to purchase a brand due to distasteful advertisements. You can avoid becoming one of the causes of that statistic by following these three simple tips.

The 12 advertisements you’re about to see definitely cross the line. Some of these “what not to do” tips may seem like common sense, but big-name brands have made these mistakes time and again – don’t let it happen to you!

Lesson #1 – Don’t be insulting.

PETA ad

This may go without saying, but consumers are not big fans of being insulted. As if PETA didn’t get enough flack already, they ran this offensive ad on a Florida billboard in 2009. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that calling everyone who is not a vegetarian a whale is not necessarily the best way to recruit new supporters. You should build a reputation for quality products and services, not the most offensive advertising.

Lesson #2 – Avoid the “ist”s: sexist and racist.

Mr. Clean ad

Maybe this message is just being misunderstood, but it looks like Mr. Clean was saying, “Get back in the kitchen,” to all moms this past Mother’s Day. What can you learn? If it looks like it can be taken the wrong way, it probably will be. Save your money and your reputation by going with a safer (that’s not to say less creative or original) message.

Intel ad

Sony ad

Intel and Sony really messed up with these ad campaigns. Maybe they were both honest mistakes, but their ads might as well have read “We’re Racists!” Needless to say, consumers were not impressed, and the ads were removed. What can you learn? Be careful using race as a metaphor. Chances are customers will read it as a metaphor for “we discriminate.”

Lesson #3 – Keep it clean.

Burger King ad

Burger King ran some suggestive ads in Singapore in 2010, and then experienced a steady decline in sales (thanks not only to this ad, but a whole slew of explicit and offensive ad campaigns). What can you learn? Be aware of your audience. Even though this ad was not released in the U.S., BK seemed to forget that with the power of the internet, their offensive ad could be spread worldwide – and it was. Burger King expected their main audience to be males aged 18-24, when in reality consumers of all ages and demographics enjoy their food and subsequently got a hold of this ad. Whoops! Make sure that your ad campaign is appropriate for your audience so that you can avoid the same marketing malfunction that BK suffered. And don’t forget: if it’s offensive, people can and WILL share it on the internet.

Here are 7 other examples of advertising gone wrong:

hacienda ad

federici ad

bacardi ad

offensive dove ad

pretzel crisps

Renault460

diesel

Most of these ads were banned and pulled from the public eye, but some of them did make it to consumers – and they were PISSED. I’ll give it to these companies, the controversy may have sparked more talk about their brand…but these are not the kind of brand impressions that you want to make. Make sure that conversations about your brand are positive, and not just a means to bash your most recent ad campaign. You know the saying, “any publicity is good publicity”? Ignore that. Once you cross the line, bad publicity is just that – bad.

What do you think? Did these companies take it too far? Is there such a thing as bad publicity? What other offensive ads have you seen?



Jenna Markowski

Jenna has a much easier time writing about the media and pop culture than she does writing about herself. She enjoys the simple things in life, like puns and typography. She is an avid fan of pop-punk, Halo 3, Spider-Man and origami, with a slight Taco Bell obsession. Her spirit animal is either a bulldog or a panda bear. You can also connect with Jenna on Google+ and Twitter.

Comments

  1. That Guy At Work

    The Hacienda ad is my favorite…

    • Jenna Markowski

      Most offensive = most entertaining?

  2. Jana Quinn

    Wow, it almost makes you wonder how many people have to even approve advertisements before they go public.

    Are they attention-getting? Sure! But is negative attention better than no attention?

    It seems like this a case of “bad publicity is better than no publicity.”

    A few of them do not have a readily apparent offensive look. At first glance, the Dove ad looks more like a heavy-handed attempt at “diversity” than “before” being black and curvy and “after” being white and scrawny.

    However, with the scrutiny these ads face, I’m surprised this ad wasn’t designed slightly differently to get the same diversity and less seemingly racist.

    • Jenna Markowski

      Right? How many people at Sony and Intel looked over those ads and said “This makes sense, nothing to worry about here!”

      I completely agree — PETA and Burger King are especially aiming for risque ads for the sake of publicity. I also agree about the Dove ad. It doesn’t seem to be malicious, but I can see how consumers will take it the wrong way, which is something that I think Dove should have noticed right away.

  3. Mandy Kilinskis

    YIKES. It’s really bad that some big businesses let these things slip right by them. For the money that they spend on advertising each year, they really need to be careful. Even if it means rounding up some random people (i.e. focus group) to make sure that it’s not offensive before hitting the public eye, precautions should be taken.

    I’m with the third of Americans, mostly. If a company does have an offensive ad campaign, I will most likely go to another competitor.

    • Jenna Markowski

      I totally agree with you, Mandy. You would think those big brands would check, double check, and even triple check their ads before releasing them. The focus group seems like an excellent idea! :)

      I am definitely there with you in the one third of Americans. I know for a fact I have been completely turned away by PETA’s repeatedly offensive ads, and I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one!

  4. Bret Bonnet

    Mr. Clean – that racist; no good doing disrespectful bald headed man!

    It’s reasons like this that I DON’T TRUST BALD PEOPLE!

    :)

    Wow; these crack me up.

    I think most of these ads are a classic example of when the brand’s sense of humor, as distasteful as it may be, gets in the way of the brand message, and the consumer, and in turn the companies bottom line – pays the price for it!

    • Jenna Markowski

      Haha, I always used to think Mr. Clean was an outstanding gentleman — now I’m thinking not so much! :D

      I find a lot of these ads hilarious too, in a “so stupid it’s funny” kind of way. You are totally right, Bret, those brands are taking a huge risk exposing their sense of humor. In fact, they are risking losing 1/3 of their customers!

  5. JPorretto

    I’ll tell you what, Don Draper never would’ve stood for these. Even though he could be the poster boy for one of them…

    • cyberneticSAM

      I disagree, he’d say “lets see what happens, we want attention, we want controversy, people love to hate”. Then he’d finish his old fashioned, straighten his tie, look at his comrades and leave the room.

  6. cyberneticSAM

    Holy crap! I can’t believe some of these are real! I’m not surprised that Peta is on here. I’m a vegetarian and an animal rights activist, and I can tell you that PETA is the worst crop to ever exist when it comes to standing up for what is right and missing the mark by a lot! As for the other ones, I think this happens more often than we think, and I don’t think it’s because of lack of intelligence. I’ll bet it’s more of a win some, lose some ethic, with target audiences.

    For example, most women are obviously going to be offended by the Bacardi add, but perhaps with this campaign the advertisers were targeting young college men and in doing so sacrificed a huge chunk of female patrons. They know that cosmos and girly drinks are always going to be had no matter what, so they’ve targeted a group who will appreciate and find humor in their very undignified and cruel advertising.

    As for a lot more of these, the advertisers knew what they were doing, but unfortunately fell very short. It’s like the infamous Dove campaign that rocked the boat two different ways and to this day, you still know it or have heard of it. The advertisers did their job; they may have lost consumers, but the ads will be remembered (a.k.a. win some, lose some).

    • Jenna Markowski

      I would say that PETA is definitely more well-known for their extremely offensive ads than actually doing something productive for animal rights. Some of the other PETA ads were way too gruesome to post in this blog!

      The “win some lose some” ethic is a good point, especially in regards to the Bacardi one. I suppose it was an effective way to market to a group who usually throws back brewskis with their bros.

  7. Tony Promo

    If anyone thinks that these simply “slipped by” the advertising execs at the respective corporations / advertising firms, you’re fooling yourself… It doesn’t matter if we like the ads or if we hate them, just as long as they’re remembered. Every time I see the Luna ad where they guy sings “FREE FLOORING” into the spatula, I want to track him down and choke him to death, literally (not figuratively) but guess what?!? I can’t get that damn jingle out of my head, or his tone deaf vocals…

    In many cases, the WORST ads are the best ones.

    • Jenna Markowski

      That is a very valid point! Ads that get on our nerves or make us angry seem to be the most easy to remember. But considering that 1/3 of Americans will turn to a competitor when they are offended by an advertisement, running a distasteful ad is risky business.

    • Amy

      The ‘Free Flooring’ commerical reminds me of Value City’s commerical where “I want it all” is literally blasted at you twenty times during the 30-second commerical. It’s obnoxious, but I remember the commerical and who it’s for, which is something many ads forget to do. The number of super bowl ads I laughed at during the game and couldn’t remember who the ad was for the next day was a lot.

  8. Amanda

    Excellent post Jenna! =)

    I can not get over the Intel and Sony ads–really!? How could these companies think that this would give them any positive feedback? The PETA ad doesn’t surprise me, they have been called terrorists because of their ads and actions before. The Mr. Clean ad is just bad judgement I think…..I think it’s referring to the mom being able to finish cleaning and get back to caring for her family quicker than she could before. But who is to say that the mom should be doing the cleaning and caring for the kids? And even if she does, why does she need to be cleaning on Mother’s Day?? And for the Dove ad, how did the models not even notice that they were standing in that order? Maybe it was photoshopped?

    This post is important for people to see I think. It shows what businesses should avoid, and how careful you need to be, because clearly huge companies do these things still. But like Sam said, I think some of them are intentional and are directed at certain audiences, plus they do add the whoa factor…but I think they’re bad either way. I’m with that 1/3 who would change brands because of a ridiculous ad.

    • Jenna Markowski

      Thanks, Amanda! :)

      Some of the ads look like they did have good intentions but were misinterpreted by their audience, whereas others are downright intentionally distasteful. As a company I suppose you have to weigh the pros and cons of running a potentially offensive ad — if the new customers that think the ad is funny or entertaining will outnumber the ones who will be offended, it might be worth a shot. It all depends on what kind of brand impression you are trying to make!

  9. Jill Tooley

    Wow Jenna, you really picked some good (bad) examples! I think the Sony, Intel, Hacienda, and pretzel crisps advertisements offend me the most. Who signed off on those thinking they’d be fine and dandy? “You can never be too thin”? Really?!? That’s awful…way to feed into the “thin is in” mentality! And the Hacienda ad is so obviously offensive to the Jonestown victims and their families – not sure how that one got through, either.

    While I agree that edgy ads are the ones people remember, the vast majority of these examples go way off the deep end. There’s a fine line between humor and offense, and the trick is to know where it starts and stops. All of these companies failed that test one way or another! (Side note: here‘s one of my favorite commercials that borders on offensive but effectively gets the point across – I laugh every time!)

    Great job on this post – it’s a real eye-opener!

    • Jenna Markowski

      I agree! The pretzel crisps one really made me mad. In a culture where eating disorders are on the rise, you just can’t run an ad like that in the middle of a busy city. And the Hacienda one absolutely crosses the line. It’s making fun of a very tragic event. That would be like if someone made a joke of 9/11 or Columbine for an advertisement.

      Haha, that commercial you posted was hilarious!

      Thanks, Jill! :)

  10. Joseph Giorgi

    “Once you cross the line, bad publicity is just that – bad.”

    Absolutely! It’s okay to push boundaries here and there, but disregarding good taste is an easy way to tarnish your brand image.

    These ads show us a level of incompetence that’s pretty hard to believe exists in modern marketing. I mean, seriously, what the hell was Intel thinking? Intel—one of the leaders in modern technology! Is their entire marketing division blind? They must be—that’s really the only explanation.

    Excellent post, Jenna! If you can find more of these un-PC ads, you should definitely do a sequel post. :D

    • Jenna Markowski

      I completely agree! I feel like an honest ad that accurately depicts the products and services that your company offers can be just as effective as one that picks fun at a sensitive subject.

      Exactly! You would think companies like Intel and Sony that specialize in building computers and other technology that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend would realize the potential downfalls of those ad campaigns.

      It shouldn’t be hard to find more offensive ads at all…I see a sequel post in your future! :D

    • Amanda

      I agree Joe! I can’t believe some of these exist in modern marketing either. Especially the ones that point out differences in race. Race is clearly something that none of us gets to choose, why would they put it in an ad like that!? Crazy.

  11. Ashvini

    I think these kind of advertisement sometimes bring out what people may actually be thinking despite being politically or racially correct.
    However, I do not know however putting these ads brings any good to the brand. They may have been designed to create humour(misguided). For e.g. in India there is an ad called as “Fair and lovely” which is designed to turn girls into walking tube-light( nothing can be more fair than that). She gets all the opportunities, introduction with stars and all the fun after she applies that cream . A large section ( stupidly) thinks so and is influenced by these ads. So much that there is now “Fair and Handsome” which promises to make tube-lights out of men.
    I personally find all the ads that make fun of a certain disadvantaged section of society or the world very distasteful. But the sad part is that these ads are being created and people follow them like crazy.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Ashvini

    • Jenna Markowski

      I completely agree! It’s amazing how much influence advertisements and the media have over the public. Some people will do anything the media tells them to!

      I find the ads distasteful as well. But obviously if the companies continue to make them, they must be working. What a shame!

      Thanks for the comment!
      :)

  12. danielle winn

    i think the “save the whales” is a little over the top but i do think its a little bit funny
    but i woulden LOL at it cause someone could get offended.
    i like the others too but that one is my favorite.
    thanks for the signs :)

  13. oyeyemi adebisi

    there is plenty that can go wrong in advertising,what other see as funne,other may see it as offensive

  14. Nope

    There’s this new ad on youtube with this guy advertising razor blades or something. It’s like one of those modern commercials that tries too hard to be funny. In one part the guy’s like, “Your grandfather shaved great, and he had polio!” or some garbage like that. Then he keeps swearing in the commercial, even though it’s censored.

    One day this place will be full of ads that are disgusting. Being offensive is the new cool. Can’t wait for the new onslaught of ads that casually use the words “ret***” and “f**” or whatever. Not cool.

  15. DPoling

    How can Cox Communications get away with their latest TV commercial? They have the dumb, nerdy “white” man falling into a hole and the “black” man jogs beside him and warns him about the hole just before he falls and trips into it. If this was done to a black man the NAACP would be on them and want it shut down…. why do we tolerate this? I say it’s wrong both ways…. it’s a poor commercial and I wish they’d take it off…. I’ll never subscribe to Cox now….

  16. Bruce Seidel

    Early 20th century soap ads were often offensive by today’s standards. The Dove ad is reminiscent of to a two-panel ad for Pear’s soap which shows a black boy bathing in a tub in the first panel and then being turned white (i.e. clean) in the second.
    Of course, Dove’s mistake seems more like an oversight that bad creative intent.

  17. Silv

    “I’m a vegetarian and an animal rights activist, and I can tell you that PETA is the worst crop to ever exist when it comes to standing up for what is right and missing the mark by a lot”
    -cyberneticSAM

    I know, right? This is honestly just the tip of the iceberg of how terrible and ineffective Peta ads are. They are almost anti-ads, Peta tends to make people care less about animal rights or even go out and eat a big steak dinner just out of spite of them. Though I will say Peta doesn’t stand up for what is right- give them some research, they put down an ungodly number of animals every year. They are some of the most loathsome hypocrites on the face of the planet.

    The dove advertisement seems to be an honest mistake/people looking too deeply into these things. Case in point I had to stare at it for a good five to seven seconds then read the caption (unintentionally racist?) again, then stare for another two to three seconds before I got it. Of course, I don’t see the world like that ;P

    I mean, if you were going to do a before an after in the background of three racially diverse women what order should you put them in? Some one is going to end up on bottom and some one on top. Perhaps it is better just to just put one woman in the foreground, and have multiple versions of the same add with a different woman in order to include all three of these groups. That way you can include even more groups. I am pretty sure Asian women buy soap and lotion too.

    Mr. Clean could have been fixed with a simple rewording. “Get back to what matters to you” which is what is being implied to begin with, making it more personal and less of an ambiguous societal demand and removing the word job to make it seem less like it is suggesting women shouldn’t have careers outside of housekeeper.

    The rest of them are massive and seemingly intentional failures.

    But the reason I am here is do to a banner ad which offended the everloving hell out of me. We all know to some extent sex sells to certain demographics. In science fiction, fantasy, and videogames this was especially true for quite a long time; your target audience was typically adolescent males. But that has changed fairly dramatically over the last decade.

    So when I saw certain adds for and online flash game it didn’t just surprize me, the offensiveness was enough to actively infuriate me. You must understand, it takes quite a bit to actively offend me in these matters. Of the ads shown here, only five manage to annoy me. Of those five only three offend me, and only one to any significant degree. Which I will not say, the point being I am not easily offended and will even defend what I see as innocuous, see above.

    Here is an blog post on the offending ad.

    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/10/14/wartune-is-for-men-only-no-womens-to-read/

    I have grown desensitized to half naked women everywhere, and this is a very old ploy for online games that tend to run off ad revenue. The no girls allowed thing is what gets me. It isn’t just offensive, it is asinine, because the sort of game that is there which involves a lot of farming and world building tends to be the sort of game young women play. Sometimes more than men. Likewise, even assuming the game was a nonstop parade of trollops and sexual titillation as promised (it is not) lesbians sort of exist?

    The fact that I see these things everywhere doesn’t help.

  18. Zachary

    I think number 2 means that Mr. Clean will help you get to being with kids faster because they’re product cleans stuff up quickly. It’s not like the other ones which are blatantly rude, although it is easy to misinterpret and even so could suggest women ought to be cleaning. The others are much worse. There is a Dr. Pepper campaign that was very sexist which labeled their product as so bold and manly that “It’s NOT for women”. Actual quote from their ad.

  19. FACE

    One thing is for sure. ALL of these were created by white people who do not have to be sensitive or aware of other cultures or values.

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