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5 Controversial Commercials That Will Give Marketers Sleepless Nights

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

Controversy! Isn’t that something that we all love? A good controversy is just what many of us often need to keep ourselves entertained. But when it comes to marketing, controversy is the last thing that marketers want to get embroiled in. And yet, brands find themselves getting involved in contentious issues that take a toll on their reputation- thanks to those same marketing campaigns that were designed to ramp up their image.

So, here we are with 5 controversial commercials that would serve as the perfect lesson for all budding marketers.

1. WWF: The Tsunami Relief

Nobody likes people who try to one-up others’ stories- “You think you were dealt a wrong hand, here’s my story..”! And this was exactly the kind of attitude that the World Wildlife Fund incorporated into its attitude for its Tsunami campaign.

The ad shows airplanes crashing into the Ney York skyscrapers to emphasize that more people died because of the Tsunami than the 9/11 WTC towers attack. To make things worse, they even created a video commercial that entered the Cannes Film Festival.

This led to such an uproar from the audience that nobody had the nerve to take responsibility for this ad. From blaming it on less experienced employees to denying any knowledge about how it got made- the controversy generated by this campaign scared everyone involved.

I’d love to find out what stuff the marketers at the World Wildlife Fund were high on when they decided to release this advert!

2. LifeLock: Social Security Number

When you have unflinching faith in your product or service, things can go awry! And American data protection company LifeLock found this out pretty soon after releasing this ad.

The company launched a billboard campaign in 2006 daring people to steal the identity of their CEO Todd Davis. The ad included his social security number to demonstrate how secure the company’s services are. As it turned out, Davis ended up as a victim of identity theft 13 times in 4 years! Indicted for the charges of false advertising, the company also had to shell out $12 million as a fine for their unethical ads.

I wonder what Davis is up to these days!

3. AXE: Women Are Dangerous

Horny women in heat- that’s how I’d describe this AXE commercial if I had to do so in a minimum number of words.

This commercial from AXE shows men losing their focus as soon as they see beautiful women in revealing clothing. As they stare mindlessly at them, these women become increasingly heated. From a young woman performing fellatio on a man old enough to be her grandfather to a female bartender pulling a male customer towards her from over the counter, the ad does everything to showcase women as promiscuous beings who are always ready for some action as long as you smell good.

Dear marketers at AXE, have you folks ever seen a real woman?

4. Heineken: Sometimes Lighter Is Better

Heineken’s marketing team decided in 2018 that it was high time to project their brand as racist. It was almost as if they saw the high engagement rates of Nivea’s ‘White is Purity’ campaign and decided to follow in their footsteps.

The ad features a bartender noticing a light-skinned baby at the end of the bar. He slides a beer her way. The beer slides past a few black people before it finally stops at the light-skinned woman. Then the tagline reads “Sometimes lighter is better.”

Seriously? Who gave their approval for such commercials? For a beer that’s popular in almost 200 countries, you’d expect it to be more sensitive.

5. Haribo: Squidgy Baby

“WTF is happening?”- that’s the first question that would come to your mind after watching this ad.

A creepy family bellowing some pretty disturbing lyrics that go like “Oh so smooth; love them soft; squidgy squidgy baby!” Haribo rolled out this disastrous commercial to promote its Super Mix. Thankfully, this cringe-tastic advertisement was pulled down shortly after it was released.

Wrapping Up

From racism and false advertising to sexism and exploitation of social issues- the ads mentioned above are guilty of all of these. However, in today’s interconnected world, brands need to focus a lot more on their messaging than ever before. It’s because nowadays reputational damage can haunt a company for ages as it lives online forever.

But just like bad ads, good ads can also last and be remembered forever. We’ll be back tomorrow with some of the finest ads ever produced. Till then, stay tuned!


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