Marketing & Branding

12 Offensive Advertisements Your Business Can Learn From

Advertising is kind of like throwing a dart in the dark. As a business owner, you’re not sure where it will land and if it will earn you any branding points.

35% Of consumer will not buy products from a company that releases an offensive ad.

No matter what you create, whether it’s a billboard or commercial, it’s crucial to keep your audience and the cultural environment in mind. If you need more proof, Harris Interactive, a market research firm in New York, conducted a poll to find out how unethical ads can damage a brand. The result – 35% of consumers will not buy products from a company that releases an offensive ad!

Everyone has different thoughts and feelings about what makes for offensive print ads. The companies featured here may have had good intentions, but let’s face it, we all know where that road leads.

Luckily, there’s a lesson to be learned from every bad ad choice.

#1: PETA – “Save the Whales”

People are going to naturally feel defensive if they’re insulted. Take for example this offensive billboard from animal rights group PETA, which made its debut in Florida in 2009. People were angry and the billboard was replaced.

PETA – Save the Whales Image source: Jezebel

Key Takeaway – Don’t Be Insulting

It’s unwise to make assumptions about your audience. Ultimately, your opinion or judgement doesn’t have a place in your advertising strategy.

Don't Be Insulting
Mr. Clean – Mother’s Day Image source: Marilina’s Chronicles

#2: Mr. Clean – “Mother’s Day”

Mr. Clean’s ad from 2011 completely has a strong implication that the real work of a woman is cleaning the house. The ad went both in print and on social media and elicited many outraged responses, especially from the younger crowd.

Key Takeaway – Avoid Stereotypes

Look carefully at the content you’re producing. If it looks like it can be taken the wrong way, it probably will be.

Avoid Stereotypes

#3: Dove – “Before & After”

Dove completely missed the fact that their ad paints dark skin as being dirty. Unfortunately, the cosmetics brand made the same mistake again in 2017 when they had a commercial showing an African-American woman turning into a white one.

Dove – Before & After Image source: Business Insider

Key Takeaway – Be Mindful of Everyone

Your consumers come from all walks of life and should be respected and valued.

Be Mindful of Everyone
Burger King – Super Seven Incher Image source: Natalie Cupac

#4: Burger King – “Super Seven Incher”

Burger King took “sex sells” to a whole new level in 2009 with this suggestive ad for their BK Super Seven Incher. The model had no idea her image would be used this way and called for a boycott after the ad ran.

Key Takeaway – Keep it PG

Sometimes sexual innuendos work for a company, but it should never be at the expense of somebody else. It should also be consistent with your branding.

Keep it PG

#5: Hacienda – “Better Kool-Aid”

Hacienda went a really dark route with this ad, which alludes to the mass suicide that took place in Jonestown in 1978. According to Ad Week, the billboard lasted for only two weeks in Indiana before the Mexican restaurant was forced to take it down.

Hacienda – Better Kool-Aid Image source: Adweek

Key Takeaway – Mind Your References

It’s always too soon. Sensitive subjects and jokes that are anything less than PC are not likely to work for your branding.

Mind Your References
Antonio Federici – Submit to Temptation Image source: Medium

#6: Antonio Federici – “Submit to Temptation”

Ice cream manufacturer Antonio Federici missed the mark when they mixed sexual and religious undertones in this printed ad. The worst part is the brand is a repeat sinner. In 2010, they ran an ad showing a pregnant nun eating ice cream.

Key Takeaway – No Religious Undertones

Religion is a taboo topic for a reason. There’s no place for it in your advertising.

No Religious Undertones

The most offensive commercials of all time include:

  • Vim Cream’s – “Mother in Prison”
  • Hyundai – “Pipe Job”
  • Axe – “Mom’s a Lady of the Night”
  • Snickers – “Do Something Manly”

Offensive commercials are arguably worse than printed ads as they feature some kind of action that makes the message seem more real. When they’re really offensive, they put a bad taste in people’s mouths toward a brand forever.

Before we go through the whole list, it’s time for a brief commercial break!

#7: Bacardi – “The Ugly Girlfriend”

Bacardi felt as though they would appeal to women with these ads. The sentiment is that “the ugly girlfriend” helps you look better by comparison. The backlash for Bacardi’s beer goggles was enormous, and they eventually had to pull the ad.

Bacardi – The Ugly Girlfriend Image source: Jezebel

Key Takeaway – Keep it Free of Judgement

Something that’s funny to you might be insensitive to someone else.

Keep it Free of Judgement
Pretzel Crisps – Too Thin Image source: Jezebel

#8: Pretzel Crisps – “Too Thin”

Pretzel Crisps wasn’t thinking things through when they ran this 2010 ad in New York City. Sure, they were talking about pretzels, but there’s an underlying message here that feels personal, especially with the word “you.”

Key Takeaway – Positive Vibes Only

Advertising goes beyond making more money and increasing traffic to your store. It’s so prevalent, and people are exposed to it so often, that it can spread powerful social messages.

Positive Vibes Only

#9: Renault – “The ‘N’ Word”

In 2007, Renault 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 ad.

Renault – The ‘N’ Word Image source: The Guardian

Key Takeaway – Know Your History

If a word, phrase, or idea is already offensive, you can’t change its meaning. Be aware of your cultural environment.

Know Your History
Nike – Colin Kaepernick Image source: ABC Action News

#10: Nike – “Colin Kaepernick”

The man behind the “take a knee” protest sparked a lot of controversy in the National Football league. While Kaepernick was right to protest police brutality, his actions were a hard pill to swallow for fans. As a result, Nike’s stock fell by 2.5% after the ad aired in 2018.

Key Takeaway – Try Not to Take Sides

Your brand can, and should, be a voice in the world, but you shouldn’t take sides on heavily divided topics.

Try Not to Take Sides

#11: Reebok – “Cheat on Your Girlfriend”

Reebok had no gains when they ran this disturbing ad in 2012. Many consumers complained about the terrible message the ad was sending, and as a result, the sports brand was forced to take it out of circulation.

Reebok – Cheat on Your Girlfriend Image source: Twitter

Key Takeaway – Offer Good Advice

Encourage your audience to be above lying, cheating, or stealing.

Offer Good Advice
Flora – Uhh, Dad I’m Gay Image source: The Independent

#12: Flora – “Uhh, Dad I’m Gay”

This ad ran in South Africa and was meant to promote a brand of margarine called Flora. The message is that dads need a strong heart to deal with their son or daughter coming out. Members of the LGBQT community were genuinely hurt by this offensive ad.

Key Takeaway – Be Inclusive

People from a variety of demographics are going to see your ad. Don’t alienate any group.

Be Inclusive

Dishonorable Mentions

Before we hang up our hats, it’s important to note that there are WAY more than 12 offensive advertisements in the universe. Brands are always taking the wrong step, and sometimes, that results in something like any of these:

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These ads reaffirm every lesson you should learn from the key takeaways above. Most importantly:

  1. Strong images will evoke a strong response.
  2. Stereotypes have no place in your ads.
  3. Poor language choices can send the wrong message.

The Bottom Line

Overall, advertising is a powerful medium that can’t be taken for granted. Whether you’re a small startup or big name company, your ads can send an important message to the public beyond selling your products. Make sure you’re always sending the right one!