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. That’s why you have to be super careful about releasing what’s perceived as bad advertisements.

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. You risk releasing offensive ads if you don’t. Harris Interactive, a market research firm in New York, conducted a poll to find out how culturally insensitive ads can damage a brand. The result – 35% of consumers will not buy products from that company!

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

Here are 12 of the most offensive ads of all time and lessons you can learn from each one:

#1: PETA – “Save the Whales”

People are going to naturally feel defensive if they’re insulted. Take for example these insensitive ads from animal rights group PETA, which were printed on a bunch of billboards in Florida in 2009. People were angry and the billboards were eventually replaced.

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.

Image source: Marilina’s Chronicles

#2: Mr. Clean – “Mother’s Day”

These problematic ads from 2011 have a strong implication that the real work of a woman is cleaning the house. The ads were released not only in print, but also ended up all over social media, eliciting 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.

#3: Dove – “Before & After”

Dove completely missed the fact that they’re implying here that dark skin is dirty. This is an advertisement that shows discrimination, even if that wasn’t the message that Dove was trying to send. Unfortunately, the cosmetics brand made the same mistake again in 2017 with a commercial that showed an African-American woman turning into a white one.

Image source: Business Insider

Key Takeaway – Be Mindful of Everyone

Even if you don’t mean ill intent, any misinterpreted ads are still your fault. Think about your ad from all angles before releasing it to the public.

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. You don’t want your company to make the list of ads gone wrong.

#5: Hacienda – “Better Kool-Aid”

Hacienda went a really dark route with these truly bad ads, which allude 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.

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 and will only lead to problems.

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 these inappropriate advertisements. 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.

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”

Bad commercials are arguably more damaging for a brand than the worst print ads. The difference with commercials is that the message seems more real.

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 this frankly offensive ad. 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.

Image source: Jezebel

Key Takeaway – Keep it Free of Judgement

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

Image source: Jezebel

#8: Pretzel Crisps – “Too Thin”

Pretzel Crisps wasn’t thinking things through when they ran this 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.” It’s just downright bad advertising.

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.

#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.

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.

Image source: ABC Action News

#10: Nike – “Colin Kaepernick”

It may seem strange for this one to be on a list of ads that are offensive, but it’s not so much about the offense as it is about the brand. Colin Kaepernick behind the “take a knee” protest sparked a lot of controversy in the National Football league. While the football player 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. Nike didn’t have a candle to hold in that conversation and was using a social issue for the sake of profit.

#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 that Reebok was sending, and as a result, the sports brand was forced to take the ads out of circulation.

Image source: Twitter

Key Takeaway – Offer Good Advice

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

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 the offensive advertising campaigns.

Key Takeaway – Be Inclusive

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

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. These are some of the most offensive ads, but brands are always taking the wrong step, and sometimes, that results in something like any of these

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 shouldn’t be taken for granted. Whether you’re printing a message on small business promotional items like pens and water bottles, or on a grander scale on billboards and yard signs, it’s important that you’re mindful of the words you’re using and what they may mean.

Your ads can send an important message to the public beyond selling your products. Make sure you’re always sending the right one!

About the author

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is a promo expert with over four years of experience in the industry. She is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products and has had work published for the Promotional Products Association International and the Advertising Specialty Institute.