Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

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!

Don't Be Insulting

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.


Avoid the ists (sexist)


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.

Mr. Clean ad

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.

Avoid the ists (racist)

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.

offensive dove ad

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.

Keep It Clean

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.


Burger King ad

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.

Mind Your References

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.

hacienda ad

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.

No Religious Undertones

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.

federici ad

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.

Stop Judging the Audience

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.

bacardi ad

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.

Spread Positive Messages

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.”


pretzel crisps

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.

Know the Implications

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?

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa loves food. A LOT. Particularly pizza and popcorn, but she knows beggars can’t be choosers. When she’s not stuffing her face (which is rare), she loves watching movies, playing volleyball and softball, and engaging in any number of interesting shenanigans. If she had to pick a spirit animal, she’d be an otter because they are playful and love to laugh. Most of the time she’s laughing at herself, whether other people are laughing with or at her is to be determined.


  1. That Guy At Work

    The Hacienda ad is my favorite…

  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.

  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.

  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!

  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).

  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.

    • 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

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 🙂

  11. oyeyemi adebisi

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

  12. 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.

  13. 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….

  14. 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.

  15. 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”

    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.

    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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. lily

    the ads that show super thin models advertising food suppliments that will give you bodies like theirs, I find this super insulting to the normal people of this world, none of us are perfect and lets face it there are more of us out there than them

  19. carole zodin

    The Cottonelle toilet tissue by Kimberley Clark is revolting. This is a product I would avoid for obvious reasons. Using an actress witha phony British accent doesn’t make it “classy”

  20. Sea

    6-24-16 Don’t know how old these messages are but recently I wrote to a MFG about an ad on TV for A-2 milk where the young guy says “you’ll friggin love it” I told them I thought it was offensive and should not be broadcast. Here is their lame reply:
    Thank you for contacting The a2 Milk Company™!

    In regards to the use of the word “friggin’”:
    The a2 Milk Company™ did not instruct the gentlemen in question to use that word. It was an original, genuine, and spontaneous reaction in response to his new found knowledge that he could safely consume the Original a2 Milk® without the gastro-intestinal issues that had come to define his previous dairy consumption.
    You are absolutely right that the denotation of the word “friggin’” is traced back to an un-civilized expression. However, the connotation in today’s modern lexicon is a playful almost whimsical assertion used to convey excitement without upsetting people’s sensitivities.

    We are sorry that you were upset by the word in question. It was not an attempt to shoe-horn in filthiness or edginess, but rather capture a real moment/testimonial.

    Our mission is to pioneer the understanding of a2 Milk® to real customers, so we can bring more people the pleasure and nutritional goodness that only comes from real and natural a2 Milk®.

    We have forwarded your concerns to our Marketing Department.

  21. Amy

    FreshStep/Clorox and Proctor&Gamble/Fabreze product Fresh Step “Hawaiian Aloha” cat litter, with the slogan “it’s like a luau for your litter box” is definitely drawing outrage. There is even a petition to ask the company to withdraw the product and rename.

  22. Randy Miller

    Where would some of us be, if we couldn’t find somewhere to be offended. Something to stand up against and make our own opinions heard. This is how i stumbled apon this little blog. I typed in “offensive blog”, not for the offensive topic.but for the offensive comments. ahh, …hits the spot, some of these. Maybe a little “win some, lose some from the industry. But you target your audience and when they choose a side, its hard to pry them away when their also drawing a moral line when purchasing a computer processor. Its rather funny logic. But it works. Shoot for the steadfast consumers. Create steadfast consumers, its all about choosing sides these days. Damn the rest.

  23. Sam Wilson

    Most of these brands are only concerned about publicity whether it is for the right or wrong reasons without thinking about the kind of impact they make on society. This is especially true with regards to the young kids.

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