9 Offensive Advertisements You Shouldn’t Mimic Under Any Circumstances
For every advertising goldmine (think the Taco Bell Chihauhau, Budweiser’s “Wassup?!,” and “A Diamond is Forever”), there are some attempts that go way off the rails. These companies had good intentions, but let’s face it, we all know where the road paved with good intentions leads.
Advertising is kind of like throwing a dart in the dark. You’re not sure where it will land and if it will be good or not. However, it’s always good to consider your audience. Harris Interactive, a market research firm, conducted a poll to find out why Americans do and don’t buy a certain product. It was found that about 28% of people refuse to buy a brand based on the spokesperson, while 35% will not buy a brand based on a distasteful advertisement in general. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
Everyone has different thoughts and feelings about what is and isn’t offensive. Still, if your company has any doubts a good rule of thumb is to just say no. You don’t want to send the wrong message to your customers and come across as insensitive and crude.
Heed our words of warning for your company, and you can avoid taking the highway to the danger zone. You don’t want to follow in their footsteps.
Without further ado, take a look at 9 advertisements that crossed the line & advice on how to avoid these catastrophes!
Consumers are going to instantly feel defensive if they’re insulted and rightfully so! You wouldn’t want anyone calling you names or making some kind of judgment about you, especially if it’s a large, well-known company. PETA, an organization that advocates for animal rights, ran this offensive ad on a Florida billboard in 2009. The implied message here is that everyone who isn’t a vegetarian is a whale. Many women raged that the ad was fat-shaming and sending a sexist message.
Key takeaway: Make sure humor is never used at the expense of any group. PETA may have thought they were helping raise awareness about obesity, but their tongue-in-cheek approach doesn’t work in this context. Ultimately, your opinion or judgment doesn’t have a place in your advertising strategy.
Stereotyping is never a good plan, no matter what. You can’t attribute a blanket statement on any group. Mr. Clean’s ad from 2011 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: Look carefully at the content you’re producing. If it looks like it can be taken the wrong way, it probably will be. Demeaning or undermining your audience isn’t going to encourage them to follow your brand and buy your products.
You have to remember that your ads have subconscious implications, even if you don’t mean them a certain way. Dove completely missed the mark on this one as the message here is that being dark-skinned is dirty, while being white is clean. Unfortunately, they made the same mistake again in 2017 when they had a commercial showing a black woman turning into a white one. Incredibly, this is the same cosmetic company that spread a positive message through their “Real Beauty” campaign.
Key takeaway: There’s never a good excuse to rank any person over another. Not to mention, it’s important to be consistent, especially if you’re taking a social stance. Dove lost a lot of credibility by running this insensitive ad.
An old rule of advertising, and media in general, is that sex sells. Many companies use this idea to market their products, like Carl’s Jr.,Victoria’s Secret, and Old Spice, to name a few. Burger King took it to a whole new level in 2009 with this suggestive ad for their BK Super Seven Incher. There is no subtlety in this ad; they 100% knew what they were doing. When the sandwich is called a “Super Seven Incher,” there’s little to leave to the imagination here. The model even called for a boycott after the ad was ran.
Key takeaway: Communicate with your team about the exact vision for your advertisement. The model wasn’t given the full story about how she was going to be depicted. Sometimes sexual innuendos work for a company, but it should never be at the expense of somebody else.
Referencing a horrific time in our country’s history is probably not a good plan. Hacienda went a really dark route by alluding to the mass suicide that took place in Jonestown in 1978. It doesn’t really make you feel like trying that margarita. According to Ad Week, the billboard lasted for only two weeks in Indiana before the Mexican restaurant was forced to take it down. This is understandable as it definitely pushed a lot of buttons.
Key takeaway: It’s always too soon. Sensitive subjects and jokes that are anything less than PC are not likely to work for your branding. You may think it’s hilarious, but it might touch a nerve with your audience. Remember, everyone has different experiences and senses of humor.
In casual conversation everyone agrees that you should avoid religion and politics like the plague. It’s no exception in advertising. Antonio Federici, an ice cream manufacturer, made news by mixing sexual and religious undertones in their printed ad. The worst part is the brand is a repeat sinner. In 2010, they made waves yet again by running an ad showing a pregnant nun eating ice cream.
Key takeaway: Controversy sometimes has its place, but definitely not when you’re marketing a sweet treat like ice cream. If you’re not selling an edgy product, keep the edginess out of your marketing campaigns.
No matter what, your company doesn’t have the right to define a standard of beauty. The model in this ad could not have felt too happy being referred to as “An Ugly Girlfriend.” Bacardi felt as though they would appeal to women with these ads with the reasoning being that women would want “the ugly girlfriend” so they could look better by comparison. The brand made a big mistake putting on those beer goggles. As a result, they pulled these ads from their website.
Key takeaway: Make sure you have people from all different walks of life on your marketing team. Something that’s funny to you, might be insensitive to someone else. A well-rounded team ensures mistakes like this are caught before they’re ever out to the public.
When it comes to advertising, your message is being interpreted by many sets of eyes and ears. There is a lot of power in having that role in society, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Pretzel Crisps wasn’t thinking things through when they ran this ad boasting: “You can never be too thin.” Sure, they were talking about pretzels, but there’s an underlying message here that feels personal, especially with the word “you.”
Key takeaway: 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 could stand to symbolize the thought process of the entire world. Be sure you’re not spreading messages that could be damaging.
Renault ran an ad in 2007 that refers to “the ‘N’ word,” which in this case was “November.” However, there’s already way too many negative connotations associated with that phrase, and as a result, their message was misconstrued. While they didn’t mean anything insensitive, the phrase already has distasteful context. People were understandably outraged when the ad ran, and as a result, Renault immediately pulled the plug.
Key takeaway: Know if there’s a double meaning that you might have missed. In this day and age, almost everything could be associated with a swear word or sexual innuendo. However, some are more obvious than others. If a word, phrase, or idea is already taboo, you can’t change its meaning.
Overall, advertising is a powerful medium and a lot can go wrong. By learning from these examples, you won’t have to issue a public apology or get any bad publicity. Companies are like people in many ways. They have a distinct personality and some people like them while others don’t. You’ll get more people on your side by being smart about your marketing strategy.
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?