Creating an ad is like throwing a dart in the dark. You’re not sure where it will land and if your efforts will actually be on target. No matter what you create – a billboard, commercial, PPC ad, bus stop ad, etc. – it’s really important to keep your audience, cultural taboos, and trigger points in mind. If not, you run the risk of creating an offensive ad.

Harris Interactive, a market research firm in New York, conducted a poll to find out how unethical ads damage a company. The result – 35% of consumers will not buy products from a business if they have an ad they deem offensive.

Everyone has different thoughts and feelings about what is and isn’t offensive. The controversial ads listed here were either banned or caused the company to apologize. These campaigns raised hackles and made people really angry.

Save the Whales - PETA

“Save the Whales” PETA (2009)

Fat shaming has never been so blatantly offensive as it was in this PETA billboard. In one of the most controversial ads ever created, the animal rights group urged people in Jacksonville, Florida to “go vegetarian” to lose weight and help protect animals. People were angry, and PETA was forced to take the billboard down.

Mother’s Day - Mr. Clean

“Mother’s Day” Mr. Clean (2011)

Mr. Clean is no stranger to sexist ads. Back in the day, they used copy like “Any Mrs. Loves Mr. Clean” and “Brides Love Mr. Clean.” Unfortunately, by 2011, the cleaning brand still hadn’t seemed to have learned their lesson.

To celebrate Mother’s Day, Mr. Clean released these controversial print ads, which implied that a mom’s “real work” is cleaning the house. Working mothers were outraged, and Mr. Clean has since tried to backpedal and stop exploiting gender roles in their marketing.

Before & After - Dove

“Before & After” Dove (2017)

Dove is usually very forward-thinking when it comes to body positivity and inclusivity in their advertising. However, this distasteful ad proves that even the titans fall every now and again. In 2017, the cosmetics company released print ads showing a dark-skinned woman removing her shirt to become a light-skinned woman. Dove apologized for the ad after the hashtag #BoycottDove was trending on Twitter.

Super Seven Incher - Burger King

“Super Seven Incher” Burger King (2009)

Burger King is no stranger to unethical advertising. The fast food company took “sex sells” to a whole new level in 2009 with this suggestive ad for their BK Super Seven Incher.

The reason the ad is controversial isn’t because of the sexual undertones. It’s because the model had no idea her image would be used in this way. Naturally, she called for a boycott after the ad ran.

“Better Kool-Aid” Hacienda (2011)

Better Kool-Aid - Hacienda

Mass cult suicide isn’t a good way to market your product. Hacienda went a really dark route with this controversial ad, which alludes to the tragic deaths that took place in Jonestown in 1978. According to Ad Week, the billboard was up in Indiana for only two weeks before the Mexican restaurant was forced to take it down. Remember, it’s always too soon!

Submit to Temptation - Antonio Federici

“Submit to Temptation” Antonio Federici (2011)

Hot priests are a trope in gothic horror stories, but it’s weird for them to show up in ice cream ads. That didn’t stop Antonio Federici from mixing sex and religion in these seriously inappropriate ads, which show a nun and priest having sexy time with their dessert.

Antonio Federici is a repeat sinner as they also ran an ad that showed a pregnant nun eating their ice cream. The church was really upset, and both these ads were quickly banned.

The Ugly Girlfriend - Bacardi

“The Ugly Girlfriend” Bacardi (2009)

Bacardi put on their beer googles and tried to appeal to women with these controversial ads. The idea is that the “ugly girlfriend” helps you look better by comparison, implying that you’re not hot enough and that the other woman is “ugly.”

The backlash was enormous with people all over social media calling Bacardi “misogynistic” and “cruel.” The liquor brand was eventually forced to pull the ad from circulation.

Too Thin - Pretzel Crisps

“Too Thin” Pretzel Crisps (2010)

Eating disorders are no joke, so Pretzel Crisps clearly wasn’t thinking things through when they set up these insensitive ads in subway stations and bus stops all around NYC. After people got salty about the campaign on Twitter, the VP of Marketing stood up for it claiming it’s just about pretzels and not body image. Still, Pretzel Crisps eventually did the smart thing and replaced the ads with new ones.

The N Word - Renault

“The ‘N’ Word” Renault (2007)

In 2007, Renault mistakenly thought that “the ‘N’ word” could mean “November.” It can’t. While the car company might not have meant anything insensitive, this particular phrase has a history that doesn’t lend itself to a double meaning. People were understandably outraged over the seemingly racist ads, and they were banned before they could cause any more offense.

Believe in Something - Nike

“Believe in Something” Nike (2018)

Colin Kaepernick is one of the most controversial figures in sports history. Still, that didn’t stop Nike from choosing him as the face of their brand in 2018.

Fans didn’t respond well to the decision and even went as far as burning Nike products and posting pics of the ashes with the hashtag #BoycottNike on social media. If that wasn’t crazy enough, the athletic brand’s stock also fell by 2.5% after the commercial aired. Nike has since moved on to other spokespeople.

Cheat on Your Girlfriend - Reebok

“Cheat on Your Girlfriend” Reebok (2012)

Nike isn’t the only sportswear company that have used distasteful ads. Reebok also had all pain and no gain when they put up these posters in Germany in 2012.

A rep from Reebok went on NPR to apologize and make it clear that the company does not condone “cheating…in any way.” You have to wonder what they were thinking when they originally gave the greenlight on this horrible ad copy.

Uhh, Dad I’m Gay - Flora

“Uhh, Dad I’m Gay” Flora (2013)

Flora is a multinational food company best-known for their margarine. In 2013, they outraged the entire LGBQT community with these offensive ads, which imply that dads need a strong heart to deal with their son or daughter coming out. Unilever, the company that owns Flora, withdrew the ads and claimed they were not approved by anyone at the company.

Spike Your Best Friend’s Eggnog - Bloomingdale

“Spike Your Best Friend’s Eggnog” Bloomingdale’s (2015)

Happy holidays! Nothing says ‘tis the season like implying date rape in your advertising. For some reason, that was Bloomingdale’s strategy when they released these disturbing ads in 2015. These controversial print ads turned into a PR nightmare, and the store was forced to stop the campaign and immediately release an apology.

Pipe Job - Hyundai

“Pipe Job” Hyundai (2013)

“Pipe Job” is not only extremely offensive, but it’s also really disturbing. This insensitive ad shows a man committing suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage.

People were naturally horrified, and one woman even published her father’s suicide note online saying the ad made her feel “empty” and “sick.” Hyundai Europe had to do damage control and publicly apologized for the campaign.

Test Baby - HomeAway

“Test Baby” HomeAway (2011)

HomeAway, a travel company similar to Airbnb, had a serious misfire during Super Bowl XLV with this offensive commercial, which shows a baby being catapulted and smashed in the face.

The travel company may have been going for shock value, but they were forced to release a public statement saying, “We feel we made a mistake in judgment, and for that, all of us are truly sorry.”

Dishonorable Mentions

World Wildlife Fund - Asian Tsunami Ad 2009

World Wildlife Fund – Asian Tsunami Ad (2009)

Sega - The More You Play With It 1990

Sega – “The More You Play With It” (1990)

Protein World - Are You Beach Body Ready 2015

Protein World – “Are You Beach Body Ready” (2015)

Quiznos - The Toasty Torpedo 2009

Quiznos – “The Toasty Torpedo” (2009)

Gold Gym - This is No Shape for a Girl 2016

Gold Gym – “This is No Shape for a Girl” (2016)

What Are Offensive Vintage Ads?

Before we knew any better, companies would try to get our attention in ways that would be seen as distasteful today. Here are some offensive vintage ads that will make you cringe!

Flintstones Commercial 1961 - Winston Cigarettes

Flintstones Commercial (1961) Winston Cigarettes

The Flintstones have been the face of Fruity Pebbles since the 70s, but in the decade before, they were smoking cigarettes for Winston! These controversial commercials are horrific by today’s standards, but they have a strange place in TV ad history.

Show Her Its a Mans World 1951 - Van Heusen

Show Her It’s a Man’s World (1951) Van Heusen

The 1950s was a very different time as evidenced by these sexist print ads for Van Heusen. The ad, which shows a woman in a subservient position as her husband sits in bed wearing a tie from the company, is an example of how far we’ve come as a society.

Cocaine Toothache Drops 1885 - Lloyd Manufacturing

Cocaine Toothache Drops (1885) Lloyd Manufacturing

Do you remember when Coca-Cola was rumored to be made with real cocaine? Lloyd Manufacturing actually used this illegal drug in their toothache drops and sold them at a pharmacy in Albany, New York! Cocaine was used as an anesthetic until it was outlawed and replaced with Novocain in the early 1900s.

We Have the Youngest Customers 1955 - 7UP

“We Have the Youngest Customers” (1955) 7UP

Who needs a baby bottle when you can give your infant 7UP? That’s the message behind this inappropriate print ad, which was published in a magazine in the mid-1950s. The copy goes as far as to say the 11-month-old pictured isn’t even their youngest customer!

Because Innocence is Sexier Than You Think 1974 - Love Cosmetics

“Because Innocence is Sexier Than You Think” (1974) Love Cosmetics

In the 1970s, Love Cosmetics weirdly sexualized a girl holding a teddy bear. This inappropriate ad was targeting women who want to look youthful, but it missed the mark with going a little too youthful.

What Are Recent Controversial Ads?

We’ve come a long way with our advertising, but there are still brands that stumble along the way. Here are some recent controversial ads that sparked debate among consumers.

The Life - Microsoft

“The Life” – Microsoft (2020)

To promote their new mixed reality headset, Microsoft hired a performance artist named Marina Abramovic. People really didn’t understand the commercial and even went as far as accusing it of having satanic undertones. After more than 20,000 down votes, Microsoft was forced to remove it from YouTube.

The Best a Man Can Get - Gillette

“The Best a Man Can Get” – Gillette (2019)

People either love or hate this controversial ad, which aired during Super Bowl LIV. A ton of American men were offended by the depiction of toxic masculinity and the suggestion that they’re all mean to women. Gillette stood behind their feminist message and promised to donate $1 million a year to nonprofits that promise to help men be their “personal best.”

Holiday Ad - Peloton

“Holiday Ad” – Peloton (2019)

Peloton has been called a cult, but its biggest criticisms came from a 30-second commercial that shows a man giving his slim wife a Peloton for Christmas. The backlash from the seemingly distasteful commercial was so severe, stock prices for the company dropped by 10%!

Live for Now - Pepsi

“Live for Now” – Pepsi (2017)

“Live for Now” is not totally new, but the issues depicted are unfortunately still part of our culture. As a result, this commercial belongs on the list of recent fails. Pepsi’s ad was criticized for being “tone-deaf,” and many accused the soda brand of trying to make money off a serious issue. In 2022, this offensive commercial was also ruthlessly mocked in season 3 of Amazon Prime’s, The Boys.

What Makes an Ad Controversial?

What Makes an Ad Controversial?

An ad can be classified as “controversial” if it polarizes or offends an audience. These campaigns often take a stance or express an opinion on a real-world issue that doesn’t necessarily correlate with the product being sold.

Sometimes there is power in taking risks and being controversial, but most of the time it doesn’t work out for the company. Procter & Gamble, for instance, saw their market share decline after Gillette’s toxic masculinity commercial aired on TV.

In this age of “woke” culture, it can be tough to know whether or not you’re going to offend someone. Still, it’s important for advertisers to think about their campaigns from all angles before they release them to the public. Consumers are eagle-eyed and aren’t going to hold back with their opinions.

Final
Thoughts

The list of offensive ads runs the gamut on poor taste. You’ll find misogyny, sexism, racism, and homophobia. The offenders are from all industries and the campaigns ran on billboards, print media, and in TV commercials. It just goes to show anyone can make big mistakes when it comes to their advertising.

References

i-scoop. How Distasteful Ads and Spokespersons Can Damage Your Brand. Retrieved from,
https://www.i-scoop.eu/how-distasteful-ads-and-spokespersons-can-damage-your-brand/

Goldstein, K. (2009, September 26). PETA’s New “Save the Whales” Billboard Takes Aim at Fat Women. Retrieved from,
https://www.huffpost.com/entry/petas-new-save-the-whales_n_261134

Wootson, C. (2017, October 9). A Dove Ad Showed a Black Woman Turning Herself White. The Backlash is Growing. Retrieved from,
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2017/10/08/dove-ad-that-shows-a-black-woman-turning-herself-white-sparks-consumer-backlash/

Cupac, N. “Burger King’s Super Seven Incher – It’ll Blow Your Mind Away.” This ad Definitely Does, But For All the Wrong Reasons. Retrieved from,
https://nataliecupac.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/burger-kings-super-seven-incher-itll-blow-your-mind-away-this-ad-definitely-does-but-for-all-the-wrong-reasons/

Gianatasio, D. (2011, February 22). Hacienda’s Jonestown Billboard Snuffed Out. Retrieved from,
https://www.adweek.com/creativity/haciendas-jonestown-billboard-snuffed-out-127039/

BBC News. (2010, September 15). Pregnant Nun Ice Cream Advert Banned for ‘Mockery’. Retrieved from,
https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-11300552

Hartmann, M. (2009, June 19). Bacardi Ad Uses Misogyny to Sell Alcohol to Women. Retrieved from,
https://jezebel.com/bacardi-ad-uses-misogyny-to-sell-alcohol-to-women-5296935

Clean Cut Media. (2010, September 8). Pretzel Crisp Says “You Can Never Be Too Thin.” Retrieved from,
https://cleancutmedia.com/advertising/pretzel-crisp-says-you-can-never-be-too-thin

Sweeney, M. (2007, November 22). Renault Pulls ‘N-Word’ Ad. Retrieved from,
https://www.theguardian.com/media/2007/nov/22/advertising

DW. Nike’s Ad With Football Player Colin Kaepernick Creates Controversy. Retrieved from,
https://www.dw.com/en/nikes-ad-with-football-player-colin-kaepernick-creates-controversy/a-45352575

NPR. (2012, March 22). Reebok Slammed for ‘Cheat on Your Girlfriend’ Ad. Retrieved from,
https://www.npr.org/2012/03/22/149126035/reebok-slammed-for-cheat-on-your-girlfriend-ad

Smith, D. (2013, September 3). Unilever Apologizes for ‘Homophobic’ Flora Advert in South Africa. Retrieved from,
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/03/unilever-apologises-flora-advert-south-africa

Bowerman, M. (2015, November 12). Bloomingdale’s Sorry for ‘Inappropriate’ Spiked-Eggnog Ad. Retrieved from,
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/11/12/bloomingdales-sorry-inappropriate-spiked-eggnog-ad/75646374/

O’Carroll, S. (2013, April 25). Update: Hyundai Apologizes for ‘Pipe Job’ Ad After Major Criticism. Retrieved from,
https://www.thejournal.ie/hyundai-pipe-job-ad-pulled-after-major-criticism-884915-Apr2013/

Floyd, B. (2011, February 9). Super Bowl Commercials 2011: HomeAway Apologizes for ‘Test Baby’ Commercial. Retrieved from,
https://seattle.sbnation.com/seattle-seahawks/2011/2/9/1984586/superbowl-commercials-2011-homeaway-apology-statement-test-baby-commercial

Ross, M. (2014, December 18). Vintage Pharmacy Ad Promoted Cocaine Toothache Drops. Retrieved from,
https://www.pharmacytimes.com/view/vintage-pharmacy-ad-promoted-cocaine-toothache-drops

Topping, A. Lyons, K. Weaver, M. (2019, January 15). Gillette #MeToo Razors Ad on ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Gets Praise – And Abuse. Retrieved from,
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Stump, S. (2019, December 3). Peloton Responds to Backlash Over Holiday Commercial, Says It Was ‘Misinterpreted.’ Retrieved from,
https://www.today.com/news/peloton-faces-backlash-ridicule-over-new-holiday-commercial-t169080

Audio Network. (2021, June 23). The Best (And Most Controversial) Gillette Ads of All Time. Retrieved from,
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