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.

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 distasteful 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 poor ad choice.

#1:  PETA – “Save the Whales”

Image source: Jezebel

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.

#2:  Mr. Clean – “Mother’s Day”  

Image source: Marilina’s Chronicles

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.

#3:  Dove – “Before & After”  

Image source: Business Insider

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.

#4:  Burger King – “Super Seven Incher”  

Image source: Natalie Cupac

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.

#5:  Hacienda – “Better Kool-Aid”  

Image source: Adweek

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.

#6:  Antonio Federici – “Submit to Temptation”  

Image source: Medium

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.

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

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.

Now let’s get back to your regularly scheduled programming…

#7:  Bacardi – “The Ugly Girlfriend”  

Image source: Jezebel

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.  

#8:  Pretzel Crisps – “Too Thin”  

Image source: Jezebel

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.”

#9:  Renault – “The ‘N’ Word”  

Image source: The Guardian

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.

#10:  Nike – “Colin Kaepernick”  

Image source: ABC Action News

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.

#11:  Reebok – “Cheat on Your Girlfriend”  

Image source: Twitter

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.

#12:  Flora – “Uhh, Dad I’m Gay”  

Image source: The Independent

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.

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.

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!