The 9 Worst Ads of All Time
#3: Inviting people to scam the CEO
Before the public sees an advertisement, it goes through several levels. Usually, there is an advertising agency that presents ideas and concepts. These get approved by various marketing leaders or senior management of the brand. There are plenty of options for quality control and to sense check any campaign before it goes live.
Yet still, some of the most idiotic advertisements make it into the public domain — brands both big and small.
Today, we look at nine of the worst advertisements of all time. As there are so many failed ads for us to shake our heads at, this list only includes advertisements that were in print or online. So it doesn’t include TV commercials — Pepsi/Kendall Jenner, your time to shine will come in the next article.
Not sure how the advertising agency behind this thought it was a good idea or how the Nivea marketing team approved it.
The ad was created for the Middle Eastern market and was a complete fail with its racist overtones. You know your ad has gone down the wrong path when the alt-right movement loves it and start promoting it.
They began reposting the ad on their social channels with captions such as, “#Nivea: the official moisturizer/antiperspirant of the #AltRight.” They also posted pictures of Hitler to the Nivea Facebook account and other racist messages to 4Chan.
After two days, Nivea removed the ads and posted an apology to their Facebook page: “We are deeply sorry to anyone who may take offence to this specific post. After realizing that the post is misleading, it was immediately withdrawn.”
Even the apology could have been better. “After realizing the post was misleading” is a very half-hearted attempt to rectify the blunder.
In 2015, the geniuses at Bloomingdale thought their Christmas catalogue should use date rape as a way to sell its product range. Yes, incredibly that ad above is what they went with.
The ad was instantly condemned and social media was flooded with comments. Bloomingdales offered an apology but no explanation on how or why this severe lapse of judgment occurred.
In 2006, Lifelock — an American data protection company — came up with a campaign to promote the credentials of their product. On billboards, they published the Social Security number of their CEO Todd Davis. This was to show that their security system was flawless and that “LifeLock makes your personal information useless to a criminal.”
No surprises what happened next. Hackers saw this is as an irresistible temptation and took up the challenge. Davis became the victim of identity theft 13 times.
Fake Todd Davises popped up around the country racking up debts. In a humiliating blow for a company that offers data protection, the fact that the CEO had fallen victim to constant identity theft proved their product doesn’t work.
LifeLock attempted to improve on their product with more development, but it still failed to save the boss’s identity from getting used over and over again.
The final straw was the $12 million fine LifeLock received from the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising.
As far as bad advertisements go — this is hard to beat. But companies are trying to do worse.
Dupont was the first U.S. company to manufacture cellophane, a product used to keep food fresh.
In 1953, they released the above advertisement. For some reason, they thought the best way to showcase their product was to have babies wrapped in cellophane. Aside from the horror of suffocating babies, this ad just looks weird. I really hope they added a warning — kids, don’t try this at home!
Thankfully, Dupont no longer makes cellophane.
This advertisement was only used in Germany but soon spread to social media globally as outrage spread. Social media users were asking for a boycott of Reebok products due to this wrong message.
It’s fine to encourage people to work out, but actively encouraging cheating seems a step too far — a brand should never offer bad advice to its audience.
A Reebok spokesperson told CBS, “We apologize for the offensive nature of these materials, and are disappointed that they appeared at all.”
They were disappointed they appeared. But one must ask, how did they get approved in the first place?
A year after the Nivea fail, Heineken tried a similar campaign in both print and as a TV commercial. The feedback was predictable with Twitter flooded with messages such as the one below from Chance the Rapper.
I hope that he is wrong and that companies are not doing this deliberately. Heineken soon used the template apology found in the Big Brand Handbook. “We missed the mark, are taking the feedback to heart and will use this to influence future campaigns,” Heineken U.S. said.
7. World Wildlife Fund (WWF)
I understand wanting to highlight the tragedy and destruction of a tsunami. However, making light of 9/11 is the worst way to do this.
Created by DDB Brazil for WWF Brazil, they later admitted the ad, “should never have been made.” They used the old excuse of blaming junior staff for the approval of the ad, saying it was a lack of experience. Even a marketing intern should know better than to mock any tragic event in the name of advertising.
WWF USA distanced itself from the ad, saying it wasn’t responsible for it and would never have used 9/11 in such a manner. Unfortunately for them, it was too late, and 11 years later this horrendous ad still lives on the internet.
In 2017, Dove released this ad, showing a black woman removing her top to reveal a white woman underneath. This ad is racist and not at all clever. This followed up in the footsteps of Heineken and Nivea.
What makes this even worse is that they hadn’t learned from past mistakes. In 2011, they had received criticism for a similarly racist ad that they had to remove. Dove again apologized for this effort, but you have to ask how a big brand can make the same awful mistake twice.
People don’t forget these things and the brand damage can be huge.
9. Protein World
This Protein World ad promoted body-shaming when it was released in London in 2015. A survey conducted about the campaign found that 61% of women felt ashamed of their bodies after seeing the ad.
Unlike the brands already listed in this article, the CEO of Protein World, Arjun Seth, showed no remorse or regret at this company’s ads, striking back against “feminist terrorists” who were just “insecure.” He didn’t stop there, even ridiculing an anorexic survivor for her mental health issues.
Seventy thousand people signed a petition demanding the advertisements be taken down from the London Underground, and three weeks after its launch, the Mayor of London banned the ad.
The above examples all seem glaringly obvious and never should have made it past the concept stage — although in reality, even at the concept stage, they are horrendous.
In this day and age, such advertising disasters are never forgotten, and articles such as this will keep popping up to shame these brands.
Hopefully, we will see an end to such racist, sexist, or offensive ads, but something tells me there will always be a new one on the horizon.