Trick Or Treat? Instagram Marketing Horror Stories

Clara Alex
Combin Blog
Published in
6 min readOct 29, 2019


On Halloween eve, let’s learn from brands’ mistakes and recall some of the spectacular fails made by nine companies that had hardly turned to real marketing horrors. The Combin team has prepared a compilation of the biggest brands’ epic fails on Instagram. Boo!

#1. Versace vs China

Earlier this year, Donatella Versace had to apologize to the Chinese for t-shirts design implemented in July. The design was found offensive by the Chinese because the designer did not consider their national sovereignty and placed China, Hong Kong, and Macao as three different countries with three various capitals.

“I am deeply sorry for the unfortunate recent error that was made by our Company and that is being currently discussed on various social media channels. Never have I wanted to disrespect China’s National Sovereignty and this is why I wanted to personally apologize for such inaccuracy and for any distress that it might have caused,” said Donatella on her Instagram.

The apology was published after Yang Mi’s — Chinese actress and singer — claim that she will no longer partner with the fashion house as its ambassador in China.

After the scandal, all the t-shirts were removed from sales and destroyed.

What lesson to learn? Do a small geography and culture check if you run business internationally. It’s ok not to know something, but your clients need to feel you respect them.

#2. H&M and the Coolest Monkey in the Jungle

It would appear, brands should already learn the lesson about questionable campaigns in terms of racism, feminism and body positivity. But, sadly, they keep on being down to this road over and over.

2018 started with a social media scandal for the Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M. The whole fuss began when the brand posted a photo of their new collection for kids. Two boys wearing sweatshirts were in the picture, and one of them (African American) had a slogan “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” on his sweatshirt.

Customers went furious and accused H&M of racism, lack of cultural respect, and distaste. Blatantly, the clothing brand apologised and removed the sweatshirts from sales channels, but the consequences of the mistake were severe. H&M was globally boycotted, their first-ever store in South Africa was broken into and vandalised, but the scariest of all is that the boy model’s family was bullied and threatened.

#3. Sunny Co. Clothing and Bad Giveaway

In 2017, the swimwear brand Sunny Co. failed to keep up with the promise to give free swimsuits to those who would repost their promo picture and tag them within 24 hours. In just a few hours, they got 3,000 reposts. The brand was not ready for such virality, and not every participant got their gifts since the company was forced to limit the campaign.

Their followers were outraged; they complained and left negative feedback in comments. Eventually, the brand co-founder apologised and swimsuits were sent to all the participants of the giveaway.

A clear example of how you should not conduct giveaways on Instagram. If you’re new to giveaways, do your research or hire a professional that will host it right without ruining your business reputation.

#4. Thin and Gorgeous Dolce&Gabbana

Stefano Gabbana is an anti role model for those entrepreneurs who manage their Instagram accounts by themselves. In 2017, the designer published a post with a shoe in it, on which “thin and gorgeous” was written. But not the post itself was a cherry on this faux pas pie but Stefano’s reaction to people’s comments. Commenters accused Stefano of body shaming and disrespect, and Mr Gabbana, in turn, called people “stupid”, “fat” and “full of cholesterol”.

The moral of the story is never to insult your followers, no matter how angry and annoyed you are. This is unprofessional, to say the least.

#5. ColourPop and Their Typos

Beauty brands are not exceptions when it comes to controversial marketing campaigns on Instagram. In 2016, ColourPop released their new line of products for face sculpturing, but the backlash of the campaign was unpleasant. One of the darkest shades of their products was called “Typo” which was found offensive by their dark-skinned customers.

Their followers got angry with this ignorance and urged other people not to buy the cosmetics.

The takeaway? Work on naming and don’t let your campaign look racist.

#6. Estee Lauder and Racism

Estee Lauder is another large makeup brand that failed on Instagram. In January 2018, the company launched the promotion of its new foundation line. It was all well and good apart from one thing: among more than 30 shades of the foundation, there were just a couple of shades for women of colour and a huge range of pale, light and ivory tones.

Customers got confused and concluded which category of customer is significant for the company.

#7. Reformation and Backstage

Posting your backstage is undoubtedly a form of content you can publish on Instagram. But not the way like this clothing brand has done.

Fashion brand Reformation used to post their backstage a lot, and that was okay until one picture. The brand uploaded a photo from its factory with a white model sitting on the table in the middle and other women toiling in the background.

The debate sparked in Reformation’s comments full of accusations of racism, classism, and even condescension.

#8. Zpalette vs Customers

And yet another beauty brand failed on Instagram. And this time, it was not about their campaign but the way they talk to their customers.

After Zpalette released its new product and uploaded a post about it on Instagram, customers expressed their discontent about its price — $85. But instead of appropriate responses, they got insults. The brand literally called its customers poor and gave discounts to those who supported brands in comments. This is basically a nice idea, but not in this context.

It’s been said too much about developing your brand voice, but this voice should not definitely be like this one. To avoid such a situation, target your proper audience and bother to be polite with people. And if you see that some of your competitors messed up like this, do what BoxyCharm did — the brand posted a publication with expressing “love and respect” to its clients.

#9. McDonald’s Doesn’t Talk to People

McDonald’s is one of the largest corporations in the world and let’s face it: they rarely fail with scandals. And this one is not a scandal either. It’s just a humble reminder that you should talk to people and respond to their comments on social media. It will not only increase your trustworthiness as a business but will also elevate your engagement rate on Instagram; thus the platform will show your post to more people.

But apparently, back in the days, McDonald’s social media managers did not know that and decided to leave comments unnoticed.

A takeaway here: always talk to your clients and respond to them, no matter how bad or good their comments are. And never claim to provide anything you can’t.

As you see, even big business sharks can fail on social media and put at risk their reputation. Hopefully, these examples help you avoid similar mistakes in your upcoming campaigns, and Combin tools are always ready to help you boost your Instagram marketing.



Clara Alex
Combin Blog

Managing Editor at Kill the DJ. Content strategist in audio tech companies. Write about music, AI in audio, podcasting, and all things audio.