With such cut-throat competition amongst brands for attention today, controversial and offensive ads have become more commonplace than ever. Brands have to be bold to be heard, which often leads them to cross the line with outrageous marketing campaigns. While some of these ads were created intentionally to garner maximum publicity at minimum marketing spend, others had absolutely no idea how their work will play out when the world would ultimately see it.
The ad industry is replete with examples of many bold ads that backfired because people thought they were offensive.
So, here we are with the 7 most offensive advertisements of recent times that landed even some of the biggest brands in trouble. Happy reading!
1. PETA: Save the Whales (2009)
This one is a perfect example of how not to market yourself. These insensitive ads were printed on a few billboards in Florida in 2009. The ads got people fuming and PETA had to replace these ads.
The ad is downright offensive and makes no pretensions around body-shaming people, especially women. The worst part about this ad was that it was made offensive intentionally. We’re left wondering what the marketers at PETA were thinking when they decided to come out with this little piece of abomination (Hell Yeah, how does that feel PETA?). But I guess we’ll never know.
As for the campaign, I don’t think it went too well either.
2. Carl’s Junior: The All-Natural Burger (2015)
Sex sells! And the marketers at Carl’s Junior knew it all too well. Aired during the 2015 Super Bowl, the commercial showed some skin and was brimming with sexiness. This commercial was a massive success. You know, men will be men!
But women’s rights activists had a field day as they ripped the ad apart for objectifying women and setting unrealistic body expectations. The commercial still garnered 2.5 billion media impressions even before it debuted at the Super Bowl.
As I said, men will be men!
3. Sprite: Brutally Refreshing (2016)
What part of your marketing goals can possibly include slut-shaming and women-hating? This is exactly what outraged women in Ireland were left asking themselves after getting an eyeful of Sprite’s #BrutallyRefreshing ad campaign. Or should we say #BrutallySexist?
The backlash erupted after the company posted billboards in the Emerald Isle that doled out misogynistic messages like “You’re not popular, you’re easy,” and “She’s seen more ceilings than Michelangelo.”
Although Sprite apologized for the sexist ads, the damage had already been done.
4. McDonald's: Filet-O-Fish (2017)
This McDonald's ad left many people offended for how it toyed with child bereavement to sell burgers. The ad features a young boy who has lost his father and asks his mother what he was like. To his dismay, he learns that he has nothing in common with his father. The ad culminates at McDonald’s where the young lad orders Filet-O-Fish and his mother tells him that it was his father’s favorite too.
While it looks like the fast-food company was merely trying to tap on their consumers’ emotions, it was done in a very insensitive manner. The public quickly lashed out at the fast-food brand on social media and they had to pull the ad.
5. NIVEA — White Is Purity (2017)
Oh boy! This one had TROUBLE written all over it- in bold and capitals! We don’t know what message the creators wanted to deliver with this ad, one thing’s for sure- they didn’t think it through. Not only did they receive massive public backlash for promoting white supremacy, but they also had to quickly switch gears to control the extent of the damage.
The debacle led NIVEA to issue a formal apology. It also added a section of diversity and inclusivity as one of the company’s core values in its bio. Damn, that’s some ‘positive reinforcement’ for you NIVEA!
6. Dove (2017)
Whoah, two in a row! Here’s another ad that was outrightly offensive for its racist overtones. This Dove commercial featured an African American woman removing her top and suddenly transforming into a white woman. Not only did people accuse Dove of “whitewashing”, but they were also heavily trolled on social media.
Although Dove issued an apology, it did little to curb the backlash. Many users went as far as boycotting it and the hashtag #DoneWithDove started trending soon after and continued to do so for weeks after the incident.
Dear marketers at Dove, you should have taken some lessons from the NIVEA fiasco. After all, it had happened earlier the same year!
7. Burger King (2021)
Really, what’s up with these fast-food restaurants? Have you got absolute rookies in your marketing teams?
The fast-food giant made headlines after it posted a controversial “joke” tweet last year on International Women’s Day. Although it’s clear that the joke was from the rest of Burger King’s Twitter thread, not many people bothered to read through it.
Although Burger King had made this tweet to announce their culinary scholarship program for their female employees, their method was deemed unacceptable unanimously. The backlash was swift and brutal as they were called out for misogyny and insensitivity by thousands of users flocking to their thread.
The company had to eventually apologize and delete the entire thread.
Let’s just face it- we all make mistakes. And that’s perfectly okay. But it’s always better to learn from someone else’s mistakes than your own. So remember these offensive ads and learn from them. Hopefully, these ads will help you think straight when you get down to making your next advertising campaign.