Ads have been essential tools for many businesses worldwide for as long as we can remember. They have a multitude of purposes — promoting services or products, raising brand awareness, building brand loyalty, and much more. Essentially, ads are supposed to put your brand in the spotlight. But what happens if they do that in all the wrong ways? What happens if your business puts out a controversial ad?
Let’s clear one thing up first — controversy is not always bad; however, it is a slippery slope! As a rule of thumb, you should avoid it like the plague. But if it does happen, you should try to make the best of it. And by that, we mean try to save face.
“Bad press is better than no press.”P. T. Barnum
If this quote just crossed your mind, tread carefully. Barnum’s point of view might apply for small businesses without much to lose, but if you’re a famous brand with a broad existing audience, controversy and bad press can be detrimental to your growth and sales.
OK, but how can you protect yourself from potential controversy? By learning from others’ mistakes, of course! Also, a bit of market and audience research helps as well! So don’t forget to dedicate your time to that before launching your ad campaign.
But now, let’s take a look at some of the most infamous and controversial ads of the past years! In the end, we’ll also provide you with an overview of what to avoid in your video content marketing campaigns to safeguard yourself from controversy adequately. So lean back, put your learning hat on, and enjoy!
12 Most Controversial Ads of Recent Years
Here are some of the most controversial ads to date:
Table of Contents
- Pepsi — Tone Deaf to the Core
- NIVEA — White Is Purity?
- Bristol Dry Gin — Lootin’ Shootin’ Controversy
- McDonald’s — Dead Father Scandal
- Dove — Body Wash… Your Skin Color?
- Gillette — We Believe… Men Are Toxic
- Burger King — The Worst Misplaced “Joke” EVER…
- Nike — Colin Kaepernick 2018 Campaign
- Signal — Controversial Ads… For Whom?
- Microsoft — 2020 Satanic Panic?
- PETA — Save the “Whales”
- Carl’s Junior — The All Natural Boo…rger?
Let’s jump right into it!
Pepsi — Tone Deaf to the Core
This advertising fail was so huge that Pepsi removed the ad within 24 hours of its launch. The ad was simple in premise — it showed some sort of protest composed of a widely mixed crowd, after which Kendall Jenner, who’s been doing a photoshoot nearby, stops, joins the protesters, and hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer to… save the day?
Sounds pretty dull, doesn’t it? Not quite like controversial material? Wrong.
This ad was abysmally bad because, at that time, there were Black Lives Matter protests happening in America. The ad tried to reference those events, even going so far as to trying to identify Jenner with a protester Lesha Evans who got arrested during the BLM protests.
Pepsi received immediate backlash and condemnation due to their insensitive handling of the topic at hand. Overall, the brand’s most significant issue was that its message was incredibly tone-deaf and unfitting to their product.
NIVEA — White Is Purity?
Oh, boy… Where do we even begin? This controversial ad is a perfect example of what to avoid. Regardless of what kind of message the brand wanted to get across, the reality is that the creators of this didn’t think it through. Not only did NIVEA receive massive backlash and criticism for white supremacy and blatant racism, but they quickly had to switch gear to damage control.
Following the debacle of this horrendous ad, NIVEA had to issue a formal apology, and it even added a section on diversity and inclusivity as one of the company’s core values in their bio.
Bristol Dry Gin — Lootin’ Shootin’ Controversy
Here’s a pretty recent gem! In the wake of current Black Lives Matter protests, riots, and looting sprees across America, Bristol Dry Gin decided to put this piece out there.
How do you think the ad performed? That’s right — horrendously.
The ad was so insensitive about a severe problem plaguing the U.S. that it was highly inappropriate. The backlash that followed this ad led to many distributors dropping Bristol Dry Gin from their stores. Eventually, the company issued a formal apology, though the damage had already been done.
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McDonald’s — Dead Father Scandal
This McDonald’s ad left a bitter taste in many people’s mouths after it had aired in Britain. Why? Because the ad toyed with child bereavement to sell burgers. Essentially, the ad revolved around a grim scenario where a child was asking his mother about his late father, culminating at McDonald’s, where it promotes their latest Filet-O-Fish. Even though the ad was merely aiming to target the consumers’ emotions and not cause controversy, it did so in a highly insensitive way that brought forth a lot of criticism. The public was quick to lash out at the fast-food brand on social media, soon after which the brand pulled the ad.
Dove — Body Wash… Your Skin Color?
Here we have another advertising controversy based on skin color. In this Dove’s commercial for one of their body wash products, an African American woman removing her top suddenly changes into a white woman. Whoever designed this ad must have had a long conversation with their boss after this ad aired…
Not only did Dove get accused of “whitewashing,” but they also sparked a huge outrage on social media. The brand’s apology did little to curb the backlash, with many users deciding to boycott it. Even a hashtag #DoneWithDove managed to remain trending for weeks after the incident.
Gillette — We Believe… Men Are Toxic
Ah, yes. The ad that could have been good had it been done right… Although, we could say that for all of these ads, couldn’t we? The premise of this Gillette ad was to raise awareness of the inappropriate behavior of some men, popularly labeled toxic masculinity but ended up sending the wrong message.
Although the ad’s goal was to give Gillette’s two cents on the Me Too movement, both men and women criticized the ad. It is not only full of degrading generalizations, but it was also condemned for emasculating men. This controversial ad screamed bully, sexual predator, toxic, and much more.
The overwhelmingly negative feedback became even worse once people found out that Gillette was removing dislikes from their commercial on YouTube. The company has since replied, stating that they didn’t intend to cause controversy for controversy’s sake. However, this ad still left a bitter taste in many of their customers’ mouths.
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Burger King — The Worst Misplaced “Joke” EVER…
One has to wonder by now if there’s a connection between fast-food restaurants and controversies (spoiler alert — we have one more coming a bit later!)… This time, the culprit is the now infamous Burger King. The fast-food giant made headlines after posting a controversial “joke” tweet on International Women’s Day 2021.
That’s right… Somebody in Burger King’s marketing department thought this stunt was a good idea… Oh, the poor soul…
Although it’s clear that the tweet was a joke from the rest of BK’s Twitter thread, few people even bothered to read through it.
Despite the fact that Burger King made this tweet to announce their culinary scholarship program for their female employees, the method they used was nearly unanimously deemed unacceptable.
The backlash was swift and brutal, as thousands of users flooded the thread calling them out for misogyny and insensitivity. At first, the company doubled down on its initial tweet, but they eventually apologized and deleted the entire thread.
Considering how much traction this scandal got, Burger King will need a lot of investment and customer goodwill to recover from this PR nightmare. Makes you wonder if it was worth it, doesn’t it?
Nike — Colin Kaepernick 2018 Campaign
The reason this particular ad rose to the status of infamy wasn’t like any of the ones we’ve covered so far. This Nike ad featured an ex-NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the American national anthem just two years prior. The reason behind Kaepernick’s protest was injustice in America.
Although Kaepernick disclosed his reasons behind his protest, he faced some serious backlash over it as many people deemed his act as anti-patriotic. The public hasn’t forgotten the ex-quarterback’s silent rebellion, so when he appeared in Nike’s ad, the masses went wild.
Kaepernick’s role in the ad was that of motivating young athletes afraid of pursuing their dreams. Although the ad’s content was extremely positive, many people didn’t like Nike’s choice of spokesperson. However, despite a lot of negative press, there were also a lot of people who applauded Nike’s decision to support Kaepernick, and overall, despite the outrage, Nike’s sales went up!
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Signal — Controversial Ads… For Whom?
One of the most recent controversies in the online advertising world regards the decentralized messaging app Signal. The company recently decided to launch an advertising campaign on Instagram that resulted in their ad account’s termination by Facebook.
But what did Signal do to warrant such a punishment? Well, they decided to take a jab at Facebook and how they use their users’ personal information in their ad! Here are a few examples of their Instagram ads that got rejected.
Signal argues they did nothing wrong since their ads only use the user information Facebook collects daily, but the jury is still out on this case. The internet is predominantly on Signal’s side, but considering that Facebook has a strong case that these ads could be harmful to their business, it’s unlikely Signal will get unbanned.
Losing the opportunity to advertise on platforms with such a massive reach like Facebook and Instagram can prove incredibly damaging for any business. That is particularly true if you’re targeting these platforms’ audiences like Signal. Although this controversial banning brought Signal plenty of free PR, the question that remains is — was it worth it?
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Microsoft — 2020 Satanic Panic?
Oh boy, here’s another recent outrage, this time over Microsoft’s ad for mixed reality. This one was quite easy to miss as it escalated extremely quickly, and the tech giant pulled the plug even faster!
Namely, Microsoft recently created an ad for mixed reality featuring a controversial artist, Marina Abramović. Similar to the case of Colin Kaepernick and Nike, the ad’s contents weren’t problematic, but the person featured. However, in the case of Microsoft’s ad, the backlash was much more devastating. The original YouTube video where the ad first aired had received over 24,000 thousand downvotes before Microsoft finally removed it.
The ad received such massive backlash due to the nature of Abramović’s art, which was identified with spiritualism, ritualistic satanism, and performances that are deemed borderline barbaric. While there are people who consider her contribution to the artistic world invaluable, the public begged to disagree.
PETA — Save the “Whales”
This ad is the perfect example of how not to market yourself. Likely the worst part about this ad is that it was intentionally made offensive. Most people are left wondering what was going through the heads of marketers at PETA when they came up with this shameful ad, but we guess we’ll never know.
We are safe to assume this ad campaign didn’t go too well.
Carl’s Junior — The All Natural Boo…rger?
Carl’s Junior 2015 Super Bowl commercial was, although controversial, a massive success! But how did this fast-food company manage that? It’s pretty simple — sex sells!
This ad was purposefully so over the top that everyone loved it! Except for the critics, of course. Namely, the brand made a commercial that showed some skin, was brimming with sexyness, and made a ton of profit. The fact that the commercial had earned 2.5 billion media impressions even before its debut at the Super Bowl should be evidence enough just how successful it was.
“If people don’t complain, I go to the head of marketing and say, ’What’s wrong with our ads?’”Andrew Puzder, Carl’s Jr. CEO
As you can see from the quote above, this brand readily accepts controversy in their marketing campaigns; however, unlike most of our entries on our list, they utilize a different approach. Instead of using something offensive, unappealing or intolerable, they use a foolproof method of “Be sexy, not mean.”
What Can Brands Learn From These Examples?
Let’s do a quick rundown of the primary takes from these controversial ads.
- Avoid dealing with sensitive topics in your ads (race, gender, stereotypes, tragedy).
- Don’t feature controversial people in your commercials.
- Don’t be inappropriate.
- Avoid marginalizing or offending anyone.
- If you do any of the above, be prepared!
- If everything goes awry, apologize!
In the end, everyone makes mistakes, and that’s normal. But if you ask us, it’s better to learn from others’ mistakes than your own! So take these accounts of controversial ads and make the best of them. Good luck, and be careful when making your next advertising campaign.
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“Save the Whales” PETA (2009)
In one of the most controversial ads ever created, the animal rights group urged people in Jacksonville, Florida to “go vegetarian” to lose weight and help protect animals. People were angry, and PETA was forced to take the billboard down.
Controversial advertising captivates people's attention by exposing them to shocking content that prompts them to physically engage with the advertisement.What is an example of shocking advertising? ›
For example, advertisements for weight loss programs, sexual or gender related products, clinics that provide AIDS and STD testing, funeral services, groups that advocate for less gun control, casinos which naturally support and promote gambling could all be considered controversial and offensive advertising because of ...What is an example of a negative ad? ›
Examples of negative advertising
For example, a television commercial for a company that sells paper towels might show how their products are more effective than their competitor's products at cleaning up messes to convince customers to purchase their brand instead.
- Pepsi ft Kendall Jenner: “Live For Now”
- Burger King: “Women belong in the kitchen”
- McDonald's: “I'd Hit It”
- PureGym: “12 Years a Slave Workout”
- Coca-Cola: “New Coke”
- Wrigley's: “Dog Breath”
- Diamond Mist and not Mo Farah.
- Calvin Klein and Lara Stone.
Apple's "1984" Super Bowl commercial is regularly cited as one of the most successful and memorable advertisements of all time.What are inappropriate ads? ›
An ad is inappropriate if it has content that: Incites violence, hatred, or discriminates an individual or group based on race, religion, disability, age, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, and others.What kind of ads are annoying? ›
Ads that interfere with content can be a real annoyance, with any placement that makes content difficult to read likely to have a negative effect. After pop-ups which disrupt web experience, HubSpot's research found the second most annoying ad type to be one which plays before or during a video.What types of ads are banned? ›
- Drugs and paraphernalia.
- Endangered species and live animals.
- Illegal products and services.
- Counterfeit goods.
- Sensitive content.
- Unacceptable business practices.
- Weapons and explosives.
Nine types of advertising media available to an advertiser are: (1) direct mail (2) newspapers and magazines (3) radio advertising (4) television advertising (5) film advertising (6) outdoor advertising (7) window display (8) fairs and exhibition and (9) specially advertising!
- Apple – “1984” (1984) ...
- Tootsie Pop – “How Many Licks?” (1968) ...
- Coca-Cola – “Meet Joe Greene” (1979) ...
- Budweiser – “Whassup?!” (1999) ...
- McDonald's – “The Showdown” (1993) ...
- M&M's – “They Do Exist” (1996) ...
- Old Spice – “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” (2010)
Bad ads leave no gaps and have no anomalies. Everything is stated clearly. No questions form in the mind of the customer. Good ads intrigue the customer and arouse their curiosity.What is a positive and negative ad? ›
Advertising is the art of persuasion, generally attempting to get a consumer or member of the public to act in a specific way. Advertisers can use positive messages to motivate someone to act, or send negative messages to scare people into acting.What are some weird ads? ›
- Oatly “Most Meta Campaign Ever” | Created in-house.
- Swedish Food Federation “Eat a Swede” | McCann Stockholm.
- Oumph! ...
- Whiskas “Purr More” | AMV BBDO.
- Cabital “Crypto Without the Crazy” | TBWA\Singapore.
- Meow Wolf “Get Out and See the Worlds” | Wieden+Kennedy Portland.
One of the dangers of controversial marketing is that it can detract from the product or service that is ultimately being promoted. Don't shock for the sake of it. Your campaign still needs to be well-thought out and strategic. Remember, the campaign should put the spotlight on your brand, and not the other way around.Who was born in 1 ad? ›
Birth of Jesus, as assigned by Dionysius Exiguus in his anno Domini era according to at least one scholar.What is the oldest known ad? ›
In ancient China, the earliest advertising known was oral, as recorded in the Classic of Poetry (11th to 7th centuries BCE) of bamboo flutes played to sell candy. Advertisement usually takes in the form of calligraphic signboards and inked papers.What are the top 5 commercials of all time? ›
- 1959: The First Ever Barbie Commercial.
- 1965: The Oscar Mayer Wiener Jingle.
- 1970: Tootsie Roll Tootsie Roll Pop.
- 1971: Coca-Cola “Hilltop”
- 1971: Keep America Beautiful's “Crying Indian”
- 1971: Life Cereal “Three Brothers”
- 1979: Coca-Cola “Mean Joe Greene”
- 1984: Apple Computer “1984”
- According to Adweek, the top 10 are:
- John West Salmon “Bear” (2000)
- Wendy's “Where's the Beef?” ( 1984)
- Cadbury “Gorilla” (2007)
- Reebok “Terry Tate” (2003)
- Budweiser “Wassup?” ( 1999)
- Bud Light, “Mr. Really, Really, Really Bad Dancer” (2003)
- Skittles, “Piñata” (2008)
If you're seeing the pop-up ads on every website you visit, or if your browser's homepage has been changed unexpectedly, it's possible your browser has been infected by a type of malware known as adware. Adware injects ads into web pages in such a way that they can't be blocked.
Subliminal messages in advertising are designed to engage people subconsciously. These ads use various colors, shapes, and words that enable customers to make small but powerful associations between a brand and an intended meaning. In short, be subtle. And advertisements have a long history of being subtle.What are aggressive ads? ›
Aggressive marketing involves any immediate and forceful technique that prospects find hard to ignore. The aim is to persuade prospects to immediately click to find out more. Auto-play videos with sound. Popups. Large sticky banners.What are manipulative ads? ›
The manipulative advertising intends to do that by using facts, arguments and plying with consumers emotions in a misleading and deceptive manner. The most claims used in manipulation through advertising are the exaggeration of the quality of product, fallacious arguments and emotional appeals.What ad is unethical? ›
What is unethical advertising? Unethical advertising is any type of advertisement that is deceptive, misleading, or otherwise dishonest. Examples include making false claims about products or services, using fear tactics in ads, and discriminating against certain groups of people.What is the most annoying type of ad? ›
During a survey conducted among consumers in the United States in July 2019, 66.7 percent of respondents said video ads that play automatically on websites with sound were the most annoying type of digital ads.Can you swear in advertisements? ›
Ads can include: Fully blurred profanity, or bleeped or covered audio, as long as it's not used excessively. Acronyms that stand for profane language, as long as the acronym itself does not spell a profane word. Some non-standard symbols or punctuation, if they belong to a brand, product name or trademark.What are the 9 major types of advertising? ›
- Print advertising. Print advertising refers to printed advertisements, often seen in newspapers and magazines. ...
- Direct mail advertising. ...
- Television advertising. ...
- Radio advertising. ...
- Podcast advertising. ...
- Mobile advertising. ...
- Social media advertising. ...
- Paid search advertising.
- Coca-Cola: Share a Coke. ...
- DeBeers: A Diamond is Forever. ...
- Budweiser: “Whassup.” ...
- Procter & Gamble: Thank You, Mom. ...
- Always: #LikeAGirl. ...
- Old Spice: The Man Your Man Could Smell Like. ...
- Google: Year in Search. ...
- Metro Trains: Dumb Ways to Die.
Modern media comes in many different formats, including print media (books, magazines, newspapers), television, movies, video games, music, cell phones, various kinds of software, and the Internet.What is the most catchy ad? ›
“Nationwide is on your side” was the best-known jingle, recognized by 92.6% of survey respondents. It was followed closely by McDonald's “Ba-da-ba-ba-baaa… I'm lovin' it” and the canyon-crossing cry of “Ricola!” The top 10 most recognizable jingles are all attached to brands between 50 and 100 years old.
- display advertising.
- paid search advertising.
- social media advertising.
Which is the most creative advertisement? Panasonic Nose Hair Trimmers, Colgate Floss, IKEA Assembly Service, and Nivea Night are some of the most creative advertisements.What are 3 disadvantages of advertising? ›
- (1) Adds to Costs:
- (2) Undermines Social Values:
- (3) Confuses the Buyers:
- (4) Encourages Sale of Inferior Products:
- (5) Some Advertisement is in Bad Taste:
What are bad advertisements? Bad advertisements are those ad campaigns that simply don't work. Instead of the sole purpose of selling your products, bad advertisements do the opposite. They turn away your audience.What not to do in an ad? ›
- Thinking advertising isn't necessary. ...
- Advertising without researching. ...
- Using only one medium. ...
- Using low-resolution images. ...
- No copy. ...
- Inappropriate color scheme. ...
- Focusing on your business. ...
- Selecting the wrong publication.
- Native advertising. ...
- Email advertising. ...
- Mobile advertising. ...
- Print advertising. ...
- Outdoor advertising. ...
- Direct mail advertising. ...
- Broadcast advertising. ...
- Product placement.
The world's longest running TV commercial is the Discount Tire Company's Thank you commercial, produced by Swartwout Productions (Arizona, USA) and first aired in 1975. The same commercial has been aired continuously every year in parts of the USA.Is advertising helpful or harmful? ›
Without advertisement, many forms of mass media such as newspapers, radio, magazines, and television, might not exist as they do today. Advertising positively impacts society because it helps maintain mass communications media, making them much less expensive for the public.What is an example positive or negative? ›
For example, the temperature of 82 degrees above zero is a positive number, and we write it as 82, whereas the temperature of 5 degrees below zero is a negative number, and we write it as -5.Why is negative advertising good? ›
Literature suggests that 'negative advertising' is an effective way to encourage behavioral changes, but it has enjoyed limited use in public health media campaigns. However, as public health increasingly focuses on non-communicable disease prevention, negative advertising could be more widely applied.
The advert finished with a voiceover of 'Coca-Cola, Taste the Feeling'. Australia's Advertising Standards Board ruled that the overall impression was that the Coke or a cola beverage was consumed for lunch; and gave an impression that Coke was a suitable substitute for lunch.What is the extreme ad? ›
Extreme Advertisementsare a type of advertising that evokes emotions such as anger and fear in the viewers.What is world's longest running ad? ›
The longest TV commercial by duration is 14 hr, and was produced by Procter & Gamble (Brazil), promoting Old Spice Deodorant, and aired in São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil, on 8 December 2018. The TV commercial was broadcast on the TV channel Woohoo on 8 December from 6am to 8pm.What was wrong with Pepsi ad? ›
Pepsi has apologized for a controversial advertisement that borrowed imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement, after a day of intense criticism from people who said it trivialized the widespread protests against the killings of black people by the police.Why did the Pepsi ad fail? ›
Due to crushing condemnation from critics and social media users claiming that the ad was co-opting protest movements – such as Black Lives Matter – for commercial gain, Pepsi® had to pull the advertisement off the air and off the internet less than 48 hours after the initial release.What is the oldest Coca-Cola ad? ›
Our very first ad was published in the Atlanta Journal newspaper on May 29, 1886, a few short weeks after the drink was first served in Jacobs' Pharmacy.What ad was Cardi B in? ›
Rap couple Cardi B and Offset appear in McDonald's Super Bowl commercial alongside seven other real-life couples.What is the most expensive ads? ›
Chanel. Despite being released all the way back in 2004, this ad for Chanel No. 5 perfume is still by far the most expensive commercial that we know of. It carries an eye-popping budget of $33 million!What is the shortest ad in the world? ›
Heinz releases world's shortest commercial at 0.57 seconds, that you'll miss if you blink. Heinz, the popular food company known for their ketchup and condiments, has released a new commercial that is so quick, viewers may have to pause it to catch all the action.What was the first TV ad? ›
The world's first television commercial aired on July 1, 1941 during a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies. The ad was for Bulova Watches, a company still in operation today. It lasted for only 10 seconds and aired on a local channel in New York called WNBT.
1948: Jax Beer airs one of the first African American television commercials.What is the history of 0 AD? ›
“0 A.D.” is a time period that never actually existed: In the usual calendar, one goes from 1 B.C. to 1 A.D. and skips zero. This reflects the historical fiction in the game: Who would have won if all the factions were pitted against each other when each of them was at its prime?