4 Spectacularly Awful Marketing Flops

There are 4 reasons a marketing campaign can fail. Take your lessons from these big brands and don't follow in their footsteps.
September 09, 2013

There’s the good: people walking around whistling jingles or quoting advertisements. (If I see one more Facebook post on a Wednesday that asks “What day is it?” I’m gonna scream!) There’s the bad: advertisements that are boring or perplexing. And then there’s the ugly: marketing campaigns that end up costing companies enormous amounts of money and credibility. While I will say I admire companies that take risky approaches to advertising, the possibility for catastrophe looms over the edgiest campaigns. But you can learn valuable what-not-to-do lessons from these spectacularly awful marketing campaigns.

1. Unintentionally Offensive

When Burger King introduced its new ad in Singapore in 2009, the company didn’t plan on later withdrawing and having to publicly apologize. The ads featured a sandwich and an open-mouthed woman with the tagline: “It’ll blow your mind away.” Evidently the sexual reference was a bit too thinly veiled. Likewise, the McDonald’s ad that featured a smirking young man ogling a cheeseburger with the phrase “I’d hit it,” made it all the way to print before it, too, was withdrawn. Finally, Renault’s big sale, with deals so great that the management was practically unable to say "no" to any offer, fell a bit flat after their ad proclaimed, “For ten days, we can’t use the “n” word.”

Lesson: If you’re going to try to be edgy or clever, do some test marketing, and if you’re going to attempt to use a hip expression, ask a teenager for an honest, slightly-more-hip opinion.

2. Unintended Consequences

Todd Davis, the CEO of Lifelock, was so certain that his company could protect the privacy and identities of its customers that he displayed his social security number on his TV advertisements, website and billboards. His identity has now, at last check, been stolen 13 times. Fail.

Snapple decided to make a splash with a publicity stunt. It created the world’s biggest popsicle in NYC: 25 feet tall and made of more than 17 tons of sugary Snapple. It was pretty cool … until temperatures rose and melted the popsicle, flooding the streets and forcing firefighters to clean up.

Finally, in a promotion for the animated series, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, battery operated LED devices with the image of one of the characters were installed in 20 cities across the U.S.—on bridges, overpasses and other public spaces. The City of Boston received calls about potential bombs throughout the city, and after several bomb squads were dispatched and lots of folks were terrified, the two men responsible for installing the devices were arrested. Turner Broadcasting ended up paying $2 million in damages to the city and apologizing for its poorly conceived publicity stunt.

Lesson: Think it through and look at all the angles. If your campaign may result in damages and civic mayhem, then you might want to reconsider.

3. Underestimated Cost

Timothy’s coffee thought it would raise its visibility by offering free K-Cups to customers who followed them on social media. What they ended up with were legions of furious caffeine seekers frustrated by insufficient supplies of coffee. Likewise, KFC made a free grilled chicken offer via Oprah Winfrey’s show, and when the Colonel ran out of chicken, there were sit-ins and even riots at the restaurants.

Red Lobster ran into trouble when it introduced an Endless Snow Crab promotion in the early 2000s. By 2003, though, prices for snow crabs were at an all-time high, and the popularity of the program had significantly altered the way the restaurants ran, resulting in diners who lingered much longer than they had before and consumed, on average, two dozen snow crab legs per visit. Estimates put Red Lobster’s losses at roughly $3 million.

Finally, and spectacularly, Hoover ran a program in which it pledged to give two airplane tickets from the U.K. to the U.S. to every person who purchased a qualifying vacuum cleaner. Not only were the factories overwhelmed with orders valued at £30 million, but Hoover also owed customers air tickets valued at £50 million. Net loss of £20 million: another fail.

Lesson: Run the numbers, then run them again. Be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

4. Inability To Control Content

This problem occurs when companies use the amazingly powerful tools provided by social media. Great potential benefits, but enormous risks when the unfiltered content comes from consumers. McDonald's thought it would get sweet tales about childhood Happy Meals when it started its #McDStories campaign. What it got instead were tweets asking about specific chemicals in its food, profanity-laced rants from current employees, and wholly unappetizing comments about nutritional content (or lack thereof).

Lesson: If you want live, interactive public contact with consumers, then you cannot control the content. It’s a risk.

Overall, when it comes to marketing and advertising campaigns, if you want to make an impact, then you’re going to have to take some risks. If you’re careful, and if you manage those risks wisely, they’ll pay off. If your campaign bombs or if you offend customers, your best bet is to deal with the problem head-on, apologize, and move on. Go big, and go smart.

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Photo: Getty Images