An ad agency in New York cooked up a novel campaign to advertise themselves to potential clients. They mailed a top executive at each firm a stuffed toy…and a ransom note. The words, cut out of magazines and newspapers in classic ransom note style, read “We’re holding your kid for ransom. We have their favorite stuffed animal. The kidnappers.” One executive passed his note on to the FBI, who investigated the ad agency and found that they weren’t kidnappers, just dumb. My name’s…
Welcome to an especially gringe-inducing edition of our randomly-appearing series, We Can’t Have Nice Things. Marketing is an absolutely inescapable force in your lives. You’d probably have an easier time avoiding water than avoiding advertising. Digital advertising alone is a $120 billion with a B dollar business each year. But a fair chunk of that money goes down the tubes thanks to marketing fails.
Just like perennial favorite Elmer McCurdy from episode 63, Well-traveled bodies, let’s kick off today’s episode with a story that makes every list — the Mooninites. For those not in the know, the Mooninites are secondary characters on the Adult Swim show Aqua Teen Hunger Force. If all that sounds like nonsense to you, that’s because it kind of is, and I’m saying that are someone you never missed an episode. The Mooninites are crude, 8-bit style characters, often seen flipping a low-res bird. At around 8:05 a.m. on January 31, 2007, a passenger at a bus depot noticed a suspicious object stuck on a steel girder underneath Interstate 93 and reported it to authorities. Northbound traffic on I-93 and Orange Line trains were delayed for more than an hour during the height of rush hour. Two hours later, officials detonated the object. Even though investigators determined the object wasn’t a bomb, they weren’t exactly sure what it was, calling it “some sort of hoax device.” The “hoax device” turned out to be an LED sign that was part of a larger guerilla marketing campaign for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. There were actually 40 of such signs, that, at the behest of an ad agency, two local artists had installed weeks earlier, with no such fuss. The artists were arrested. At a later press conference, when reporters tried to ask them how they felt about causing a panic, the pair refused to answer any questions not related to “haircuts of the ’70s.” The story became national news, with the apparent over-reaction of authorities getting more press than the Aqua Teen movie ever would. By the afternoon of the incident, Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of Cartoon Network, publicly accepted responsibility for the stunt and later agreed to pay a total of $2 million to agencies involved in the response, with half of it going to Homeland Security and other related programs. Who all was involved in helping Boston PD neutralize the threat that was basically a Lite-Brite? The ATF, FBI, Federal Protective Services, United States Secret Service, Massachusetts State Police, Federal Park Police, and Transit Police. The head of Cartoon Network resigned a week later and the artists got away with a plea deal for community service.
A California agency figured the best way to most people’s hearts is through their stomachs, so they decided to woo potential clients with donuts. Not at all a bad idea, unless you decide the best way to get those donuts into people’s hands is to mail them. The prospective clients were understandably unimpressed at the proposals that arrived at their office with a box of smashed, moldy donuts.
That’s two ad agency fouls up in the first page of this script, so maybe that’s why Chevrolet decided to let the public write their ads for them. When General Motors teamed up with NBC’s The Apprentice to promote the Chevy Tahoe SUV in March 2006, somebody had a brilliant idea. Why not let viewers build their own commercials on the Web? Promotional spots on the show directed viewers to a now defunct website, where viewers could build ads using GM-supplied video and music, but with apparent free reign to add their own creative text. Instead of loving tributes to the Tahoe, hundreds of videos appeared portraying the Tahoe as a gas guzzling, safety-challenged ego enhancement for environmentally irresponsible dorks with diminutive sexual organs. After a couple weeks of abuse, GM scrubbed the videos from its site, but many live on on YouTube and yes, they are linked in the show notes. If your app doesn’t do links in the show notes, tag me on social media […] and I’ll send it to you. Chevrolet also misfired with a 2000 campaign for the Blazer, which showed their SUV attached to the side of a ship in place of one of its life boats. The problem? Chevy’s tagline is “Like a rock,” which is the last thing you’d want in a life boat.
Drivers are used to car companies bragging about their safety feature, usually by showing cool slow-mo test crashes, but Hyundai decided to go a different way with things and claim their car’s low emissions as a safety measure things. They ran a TV commercial in the UK showing a man getting into the Hyundai IX35 crossover in a garage, rolling down the windows, starting the car and trying to kill himself. The attempt was unsuccessful, however, because the crossover didn’t produce enough toxic emissions. The backlash was immediate and severe. Hyundai Motor Europe issued a statement that said, in part, “We are very sorry if we have offended anyone. We have taken the video down and have no intention of using it in any of our advertising or marketing.” The popular car website Jalopnik gave the ad the dubious title of ‘Worst Car Ad in History’.
In the mid 1990s, Fiat wanted to do something big to get some buzz going around their new Cinquecento. The ad agency they hired decided to send anonymous letters to 50,000 women. Each letter was personally addressed to the recipient and began with a flurry of compliments, then came an invitation to have a “little adventure” after “we met again on the street yesterday and I noticed how you glanced interestedly in my direction.” It’s like if a terrible Craigslist Missed Connections came to your home address. Local papers reported that many women felt threatened by the letter. Some women chose to stay home for a few days, worried they were actually being stalked. Other women had awkward – and undoubtedly confusing – arguments with partners, boyfriends and husbands demanding to know who the Mysterious Man could be. The mystery was solved a few days later when the agency sent a second letter to identifying their ‘admirer’ as the new Fiat Cinquecento. Fiat cancelled the campaign and apologized after widespread criticism from the public and consumer protection advocates.
Ford’s branch in India wanted to showcase the amount of trunk space in the hatchback Figo. What better way to do than show how many celebrities you can keep back there … right? Wrong. The ad campaign featured a series of cartoon celebrities, including Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, tied up in the back of the Ford Figo with the tagline “Leave Your Worries Behind.” One version of the ad even featured then Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi driving with three scantily clad women bound and gagged in the back. Ford HQ stepped in, shut down the ad and immediately began issuing apologies.
Back in the 80s, Ford launched their Aerostar minivan and decided to have some fun with the design of the van as well as its name. In the 80s, everyone was talking about NASA missions and looking towards the stars. So Ford decided to capitalize on the popularity and ordered a massive campaign that compared the Aerostar to the space shuttle. This time, the marketing fail had nothing to do with the content, but with the timing. The campaign was launched in 1986 … the same year as the Challenger explosion. Bonus fact: Carol Spinney, the man who puppetted beloved Sesame Street denizen Big Bird for nearly fifty years was almost on the Challenger. Luckily for him, though sadly for teacher Christa McAuliffe, the giant costume would have been a logistical nightmare in the space shuttle.
Bad timing can easily ruin an otherwise good ad campaign. With hope to evoke the proud emotions of accomplishment, satisfaction, and dedication, Adidas sent a congratulatory email to its customer base, including participants of the Boston Marathon, after the race. The email message read: “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” The email was probably written and scheduled well in advance of the race, that being the Boston Marathon of 2016, the race that was hit by a terrorist attack in 2013 that killed three people and injured more than 260. People who got the email screencapped it and blasted Adidas on social media. Airbnb launched their ‘floating world’ marketing campaign, which included an image of a water-themed house sitting on the surface of water. The copy included, “Stay above water,” and “live the life aquatic with these floating homes.” Everything would have been fine, except this campaign launched on August 28th, 2017, when Hurricane Harvey was engulfing Houston.
Frito-Lay decided to set aside spokesfeline Chester Cheetah and try something a little “edgy.” The Orange Underground site features a deliberately scratchy video urging viewers to commit Random Acts of Cheetos (RAoC). “Coat your fingers with Cheetos and leave your mark. On someone’s back. Someone’s desk. Wherever you like.” It encouraged visitors to fill people’s shoes with Cheetos, crush them inside someone’s laptop, or toss them into the dryer with someone else’s laundry–and then post videos of their dirty deeds online. The company set up a blog, created a YouTube channel, took out full-page ads in USA Today, and even assigned a minion to troll the blogosphere and post comments using the screen name Cheeto1. Fortunately for the world’s laundry, almost no one noticed. Online-brand consultant John Eick counted a grand total of 17 blogs talking about the campaign a month after it launched.
Speaking of trying to be edgy, middling R&B singer Ashanti’s people thought it would be keen to advertise her new album “The Declaration” via fake death threats that fans could make through her website. CNN reporter Lola Ogunnaike received one and described it like this: “ I received a really disturbing e-mail the other afternoon. “Do you know the person pictured in the following video,” it read. “If so, please contact me immediately. Your life might be in danger.” The sender claimed to be a Detective James Nicholas, Director of Crime Prevention for the Universal Crime Network. It’s not everyday that I get death threats, so naturally I freaked, clicked on the link and up popped a news report about a series of copycat murders that had been inspired by the R&B singer Ashanti’s video “The Way That I Love You,” a song about a woman who discovers her boyfriend has been unfaithful. Clutching a butcher knife and dressed in beaded gown, she cries and croons about betrayal. The cheater ends up dead in bathtub. Jealous lovers, according to the report, were on a rampage — and the next victim, it suggested, would be me. On the wall of one of the crime scenes were the words “Lola Will Die,” written in what appeared to be blood. Yikes.” How this was going to sell albums, I don’t know. Neither did the record label apparently either. “The Declaration” sold 80,000 copies its first week, a far cry from the 400,000 albums her debut sold in its first week six years earlier.
Toyota’s “Your Other You” ad campaign for the 2009 Matrix was supposed to capitalize on the “punking” trend popular at the time, but the punk was on the other foot when they found themselves sued for $10 million in damages by one of the victims. In the summer of 2008, a woman named Amber Duick began receiving emails from a man called Sebastian Bowler, who appeared to be a thuggish, beer-chugging, British soccer fan. In the emails, Bowler told Duick that he was driving across the U.S. and needed to lay low at her place for a while, following some “unpleasantness” at a motel that involved the smashing of a TV. He told Duick that he’d arrive in a couple of days and made it clear that he had her home address. Duick subsequently received an email from the manager of the aforementioned motel, along with an invoice for the television, arguing that she was responsible for the cost. Naturally, Duick was as frightened as she was confused. Eventually another email came in, pointing her to a video explaining that it was all a hoax, but by then, the damage had been done. Duick hired a lawyer and slapped Toyota, their ad agency, and 50 other named individuals with a $10 million lawsuit for infliction emotional distress; unfair, unlawful, and deceptive trade practices; and negligent misrepresentation, among other things. Toyota sought to have the lawsuit dismissed and moved to arbitration, arguing that Ms. Duick agreed (without knowing she agreed) to the whole prank when she clicked an online terms-of-service agreement, which included an arbitration clause. The Court of Appeal of California rejected this argument stating that there was no way Ms. Duick could tell what she signed up for or consented to. Unfortunately, that’s the very last thing I could find about the case.If you ever see one example of encouraging people to prank friends as a way to sell products actually working, do let me know, because I can’t find any. Group
These are far from the only examples of ad campaigns leading to lawsuits. In July of 2008, Taco Bell created an advertisement asking rapper 50 Cent (whose real name is Curtis Jackson) to change his name to 79 Cent, 89 Cent, or 99 Cent for a day to promote its cheaper menu items. In exchange for the one-day name change, Taco Bell offered to donate $10,000 to a charity of his choice. Sounds good right? Curtis Jackson didn’t think so. In fact, he didn’t even know about the offer. After the advertisement was released without his knowledge, the rapper filed a lawsuit against the fast-food conglomerate for using his name without his permission. Apparently, Taco Bell sent a joke letter to news outlets requesting the name change without first even sending it to Curtis Jackson. For simply mentioning his name in an ad, Taco Bell was slapped with a $4 million dollar suit, and lost. Taco Bell was forced to pay an undisclosed amount to Curtis Jackson for misleading his fans into thinking that he was “selling out” as a paid endorser.
Sometimes the wasted money and backlash from advertising comes not from what a company does as much as the fact that they decided to do something new at all. It’s Christmas 2011. Coca-Cola released white cans to raise awareness and funds to create a safe haven for the polar bear. However, the problem was that these white cans were too similar to the silver diet coke cans. Travesty! Consumer outrage emerged on Twitter from diabetics claiming that they had bought the cans by accident to realise that they were drinking regular coke. The white cans were removed and red cans were immediately bought back in. In Coca-Cola’s 125 years of existence, the company has never changed its can color; change it to white and you’re going to find a backlash of angry consumers. The fact of the matter is that the consumer had no choice but to accept this change, having no choice in the matter – why should a consumer sacrifice their loving red can of coke just so polar bears can receive more
Logo redesign and rebranding for corporations isn’t cheap. Companies pay firms millions of dollars for new designs and sometimes it would have been faster and easier to take that money out to the parking lot and burn it. Gap’s logo from 1986 from 2016 was iconic. But for six long days in October 2010, Gap swapped their typeface to sans-serif Helvetica and transformed the navy blue background to a smaller, gradient box to the top and right of a lowercase P. A small buzz began to reverberate around the design community, quiet sniggering about the new Gap logo. Soon, the internet was alive with activity and it was clear that people didn’t like the new design. The Gap rebrand was estimated to have cost them $100 million, not the price tag you’d expect for something that could’ve been cobbled together using WordArt.
Dove beauty products *had a win with the positive body image “Real Beauty” campaign featuring real women of various shapes, sizes, and skin tones. The campaign has actually been running for 15 years and is widely noted as one of the most successful marketing campaigns. But… In the UK, Dove released limited edition packaging designed to present diverse representations of female bodies, basically shampoo bottles with different curves. Women did not appreciate having their bodies compares to abstract, shapeless soap bottles. Instead of reinforcing a strong body image, it ended up increasing self-consciousness. In the same year, Dove ran an ad on Facebook showing a four panel image showing a young African American woman removing her shirt over three panels. The fourth panel shows a young white woman. Oops! If you Google “Dove racist ad,” it pops right up. Dove said the ad was intended to show “the diversity of real beauty.” Everyone else interpreted it to mean something else. At least Dove had company. In Nivea’s Middle East division, the company posted an ad for their “Invisible for Black and White” deodorant. The image depicted the back of a woman’s head with long, dark hair covering her white outfit. The tagline read, “White Is Purity.” Obviously, this was interpreted as racially insensitive. Worse for Nivea than the people speaking out against the ad were all the white supremacist groups jumped at the opportunity to applaud Nivea for it.
There wasn’t any cheering when the US department store Bloomingdale’s released its Christmas catalogue two years ago. The photo of an attractive, well-dressed woman being eyeballed by an unsmiling man looked innocent enough… Until you read the creepy caption that said “spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking”. The online backlash was swift with many interpreting it as supporting date rape. Bloomingdale’s admitted the ad was “in poor taste”.
Benetton’s “Unhate” campaign, which still exists, had good intentions when it launched in 2011, then things got weird. Their posters showed half a dozen world leaders locking lips, including China’s Hu Jintao and America’s Barack Obama. But on one of its images the Italian clothing company clearly took its photo-editing skills too far. It received a warning and the threat of legal action from the Vatican for a “totally unacceptable” image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing an Egyptian imam, and subsequently withdrew the ad. The Vatican said in a statement that the ad was “damaging not only to the dignity of the Pope and the Catholic Church but also to the feelings of believers”. The White House also disapproved of the images featuring then-President Barack Obama but Benetton kept those.
Politics is a dicey way to try to bring in more customers, especially if people are in the streets protesting their government. Probably not the best time to shoe-horn your brand into the conversation. The Kenneth Cole clothing company thought the Arab spring was an idea platform for social media marketing when they tweeted: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” More than 800 would be killed in the Egyptian revolution. Twitter users quickly roasted the company for their insensitivity. Kenneth Cole pulled the tweet and issued an apology. Lesson learned? Nope! Two years later, they put out another insensitive tweet during the crisis in Syria: “Boots on the ground” or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear.” Oy vey.
Most of these entries violate social mores or good sense, but EA literally broke the law. The video game company shipped brass knuckles with advanced copies of the Godfather II video game to media outlets. Turns out that in many of the states where they shipped the brass knuckles, they’re illegal weapons. A day late, EA realized this hadn’t been their most brilliant idea and they quickly contacted journalists asking them to send back the brass knuckles.
Despite looking incompetent, they generated more buzz around the not-so-hotly anticipated Godfather II game with a marketing mistake than they likely would have otherwise avoided. The result? Ultimately, the game was considered a commercial failure, selling only 400,000 copies.
And that’s … But you don’t have to be a big business to make big marketing mistakes. A Texas mattress company called Miracle Mattress used 9/11 disaster as a sales theme in an online commercial for their “Twin Tower Sale”. Picture two stacks of mattresses in the background with two men standing in front of them and a woman in the front center. “What better way to remember 9/11 than with a Twin Tower sale? Right now you can get any size mattress for a twin price.” She banters with the men before throwing her arms open triumphantly, sending the men crashing into the twin towers of mattress. She Shatners some panic, then turns back to the camera and, still smiling, says, “We’ll never forget.” Very shortly thereafter, the owner closed the store indefinitely. In his apology statement, he also said that their “best path forward is to re-open the doors as soon as possible, following the hiring of new staff and training.”