PR Hacks

Avoid These Shitshows: 9 Marketing Fails to Learn From

Bryce North
6 minutes
June 25, 2024

With the advent of social media, it has become much harder to escape a mistake long-term. People are ready to pounce on any mistake, even if it is innocent or you are open to being wrong and ready to improve. Why even try?

The truth is that most of the time it’s possible to bounce back. To help you understand this, below are nine of the biggest marketing fails we could get our hands on. Many of these companies are still around, so read on for the reassurance you need to dive into your next PR campaign.

9 REAL Examples of Marketing Gone Wrong

1. Pepsi Number Fever

In 1992, Pepsi ran a promotion in the Philippines that offered cash prizes to anyone who found a specific number in a bottle cap. A printing error meant that hundreds of thousands of people “won”, and protests erupted when they learned they wouldn’t receive the prize.

After riots, injuries, and even deaths, Pepsi bounced back in only two years. They even reported revenues in the tens of billions last year in that region alone. Their marketing has not stopped, and they continue to push forward despite the incident and ongoing legal battles.

2. H&M's Offensive Hoodie

Not being careful enough with your product imagery is one of many examples of common digital marketing mistakes. Not responding the right way can then make it even worse. This happened to H&M in 2018 when they released a hoodie that said “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” and advertised it on a black child.

It took several attempts for social media to calm down, but H&M did the right thing by responding immediately. They also learned that they might need extra checks when it comes to marketing and product imagery.

3. Dove's Potentially Racist Advertising

Dove released a video featuring women pulling off a piece of clothing to reveal another woman underneath. One of these transitions showed a black woman transforming into a white woman. 

People twisted the narrative by saying it was the only transition and that it was suggesting all black people are white underneath.

Even after the original model said there was no issue with it, Dove sent out a press release stating they had made a mistake. They pulled down the video and moved forward attempting to rebuild trust. 

Failed marketing campaigns may come from the manipulation of your words. Treat these times as seriously as any other.

4. McDonald's Advertising with Child Bereavement

At one point, McDonald's released a UK ad that used a child’s memory of his recently deceased father as a central message of an advert. The boy reminisced about his late father and found a real connection with him when he learned they both enjoyed the Filet-O-Fish sandwich.

The media commented that it was inappropriate to exploit grief. As such, McDonald’s pulled the ad down.

They responded fast, and the advert is rarely in the minds of customers these days. This was a highly effective response and a good example of what one should do.

5. Burger King Encouraging Pregnancy

In Russia, Burger King’s promotional team offered free Whoppers to women who got pregnant by World Cup soccer players. They joked that they were trying to make the best football players through eugenics. The joke fell flat.

As such, when trying out risky jokes, be very careful. Try to maintain ethical standards, and listen to feedback from campaign testing when possible.

6. SpaghettiOs and Pearl Harbor (Yes, Really!)

In 2013, SpaghettiOs wanted to appear respectful on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbour. They tweeted out a picture of their mascot holding an American flag and referenced the event. People in the US saw this as trivializing the attack.

They apologized, but it goes to show that historical events are not a place to promote your brand. Use somber and carefully chosen imagery instead.

7. Malaysia Airlines' Bucket List Challenge

Shortly after a pair of airline disasters, they launched a “bucket list” campaign asking where people wanted to go before they died. People called them out on this, as they saw the timing as insensitive.

Be aware that when you are down, it is not the time to do anything big that could link to recent problems. Try to separate yourself as much as possible from ongoing issues to avoid conflating them.

8. Kenneth Cole Leveraging Unrest with a Tweet

During the Arab Spring uprising, shirt company Kenneth Cole tweeted:

“Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.”

Leveraging a political crisis for commercial gain was never going to go well. They were swiftly criticized, and continue to see some response to this day due to the insensitivity of their messaging.

Be aware that social media is a worldwide platform. Do not make jokes about recent or ongoing events where people are hurt.

9. Ea-nāṣir and the Oldest PR Fuckup in History

Ea-nāṣir was an ancient Mesopotamian merchant. We know he provided poor-quality copper to his customers for one reason alone: his house was full of complaints etched in clay.

Thousands of years later, it is all we know about him. Similarly, remember that what you put on the Internet will not go away in any meaningful time. So, even if you have an incident of marketing gone wrong, continue to move forward and do not dwell on the past.

Find a PR Firm Who Can Help You Bounce Back from Marketing Fails

These marketing fails each come with a lesson to help you get back on your feet. Apply this wisdom to your strategies and you should be able to keep going even if the shit hits the fan.

If you need a little help, though, Don’t Be a Little Pitch are experts at stepping in when a message doesn’t land as you intended. If you want help in moving past it, get in contact and we can discuss the benefits of working with the masters of edgy marketing today.

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