The Greatest Advertising Failures of All Time

6 Marketing Moves That Crashed and Burned

Baby slapping the face of a man, making him spit out cereal
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Advertising isn't a science. You can have all the data in the world at your disposal, and you can employ the brightest minds in the industry, but you can't predict how well a campaign will do.

Agencies put work in front of focus groups and adjust their campaigns accordingly, but it's still a rare ad that hits it out of the park. And some are spectacular failures. A few disastrous campaigns stand head and shoulders above the rest for one reason or another.

These bad ads actually boosted sales in some bizarre cases, but there was no getting around the negative press and horrendous feedback they brought on the brands.

1. DiGiorno’s Pizza: #WhyIStayed

Sometimes a quick tweet on a trending hashtag can be brand gold. The famous Oreo tweet “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” was published during the 2013 Super Bowl blackout and it cost almost nothing, yet it garnered more publicity than the multi-million-dollar spots that aired that year—or didn’t air, depending on the time.

But social media trends are here one minute and gone the next, and that can sometimes present a problem. The trick is to react to something quickly enough to ride the wave, but carefully enough to get the tone and the meaning right.

Sadly, DiGiorno’s pizza jumped on the trending #WhyIStayed hashtag without understanding what it implied. #WhyIStayed was, and still is, a campaign to raise awareness of domestic abuse. Victims have used two different tags—#WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft—to highlight the many reasons they remained trapped in a horrible situation for years or why they got out.

DiGiorno’s misread the hashtag entirely and wrote: “You had pizza.” The condemnation was swift and brutal. The community manager responsible started personally replying to every tweet to apologize, using the official DiGiorno’s account. It was a real mess that could have been easily avoided if someone had just spent 60 seconds on research.

2. Bud Light: #UpForWhatever

Another hashtag, another marketing disaster. This time the brand in question didn’t jump on a trending hashtag but instead created its own.

In theory, it’s an interesting idea—quite a few people would admit to being “up for whatever” after a few beers. And the campaign itself made good on that idea, with a Super Bowl ad that gave one Bud Light drinker the night of his life: a limo ride with Reggie Watts, professional styling by Minka Kelly, going to a party with Don Cheadle, and playing ping-pong with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Awesome!

But things took a nasty turn when the advertising campaign spilled over into other tactics, such as the label on the bottle. The phrase “the perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night” went into the territory of date rape.

Budweiser apologized and the offending bottles were removed from circulation, but the damage had been done.

3. Coca-Cola: New Coke

The cola wars were in their prime in 1985, and Pepsi and Coke were sparring it out with full-blown ad campaigns. The Pepsi Challenge seemed to prove that people actually preferred the taste of Pepsi to Coke in a blind taste test. That worried the people at Coca-Cola. In fact, it worried them so much that they decided to change the product’s 100-year-old formula...again, before doing their research.

They launched New Coke to the world on April 1985 before they realized that the data was wrong. Yes, people initially liked the Pepsi flavor over Coke—that first taste in a sip test. But overall, more people preferred the slightly less sweet Coke formula when drinking a whole can.

Coke’s decision to up the sweetness of its product failed miserably. Millions of dollars were spent on the reformulation, new packaging, and ad campaigns, but the efforts actually tarnished the company’s image. Pepsi got a big bump from the New Coke disaster. Coca Cola announced in July, just a few months later, in July, that it had made a huge mistake and that the old Coke was returning.

Some people think it was a cunning move to get people loving Coke again, but that's probably not the case considering the amount of money that was wasted and the stain on the company’s image.

4. Starbucks: Race Together

Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz is a polarizing figure, to say the least. He's involved his company in some rather controversial topics over the years, including same-sex marriage and gun control, so it didn’t seem like a big leap for him to dive into the race relations pool.

The campaign was kicked off in the New York Times with an unmissable all-black full-page ad containing the phrases, “Shall We Overcome?” and “RaceTogether” along with the company logo.

It soon became evident to customers that the chain wanted to talk to them about race relations in the U.S. Schultz had been working with employees for months on the subject, encouraging them to talk about racial issues with those who stopped in for a cup of joe. Big mistake.

You want a coffee jolt and maybe a snack when you go to Starbucks. You do not want to be confronted by a barista who asks you how you feel about affirmative action or the disproportionate number of African Americans in prison. This is a topic that can cause extreme tension, to say the least, and even physical reactions.

Luckily, Schultz realized what a mistake he had made after just six days, and he pulled the Race Together campaign.

5. Ford: Edsel

Ford released a new car to the American public on September 5, 1957. It was going to be the big one, designed to provide a premium experience for the middle class, a car with style and refinement. It oozed sophistication.

Ford was so confident in its creation that it sunk over $250 million into the project, roughly $2.1 billion in today’s dollars. The car was the infamous Edsel. It was a perfect storm of hubris, expectation, and ignorance.

It all started with focus groups and endless polls designed to find out just what the American people wanted, but then the research was ignored in favor of designs that were already in the early stages of production. The “please all of the people all of the time” mentality resulted in 18 different variations of the Edsel being presented at launch.

The data collected was also ignored when it came time to sell the cars, with scientifically formulated methods being dumped in favor of some very sketchy tactics. The first models pushed on the general public weren't ready. They had oil leaks, sticking trunks and hoods, and a variety of buttons that would have confounded Einstein.

To add insult to injury, the company kept trying to push different versions of the Edsel over the next few years. But no one wanted the car. It was considered a horrible piece of machinery, and Ford lost $350 million on it at the end of the day—$2.9 billion when adjusted for inflation.

6. Hoover: Free Flights

It’s not often that a marketing campaign self-destructs so badly that it brings the company to its knees, but this classic goof did just that in 1992.

Hoover is a name synonymous with vacuuming, particularly in the U.K. That kind of brand name recognition is gold, so you'd think it could withstand a marketing campaign that was a little off in the financial calculations. But Hoover's gaffe went way beyond some crummy math.

The company had a massive backlog of aging stock that it wanted to shift and shift quickly. Someone thought the best way to do this would be to offer the customers a deal they couldn't refuse—two free plane tickets to the U.S. when they purchased more than £100 ($135) in Hoover products.

It was an insane deal, virtually unaffordable. Updated for inflation, that would the equivalent of spending just $236 to receive about $1,500 in airfare. Hoover was basically giving every customer over $1,250.

Of course, the general public flocked to get the Hoovers, and the demand was too much for the company to handle. Over 222,000 people managed to get their round-trip tickets, and Hoover was over £50 million—$68 million—in the hole. That would equate to around $120 million today. The company couldn’t handle that kind of loss, and the British division of Hoover was sold off to the Italian manufacturer Candy.

The lesson: Run your marketing idea past a few of your company’s accountants before committing to a project. Hoover has never fully recovered from the debacle.