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Top Controversial Ads: Marketing Lessons and Mistakes to Avoid

top controversial ads marketing lessons

Great advertising–when done well–can inspire, delight, and be a unifying force for good. The examples below are not what we consider to be in the “inspire and delight” category.

We looked at hundreds of ads to find only those that truly “missed the mark”. By examining these infamous ads, you can learn what not to do to avoid backlash and damage to your brand. This article explores some of the most talked-about ads across various formats—videos, billboards, social media posts, and full marketing campaigns.

Apple’s “Crush” (2024)

Apple is known for their inspiring, innovative ads…but this was not one of those ads.

Their recent ad, titled “Crush”, showed musical instruments, beautiful paints, sculptures, and other beloved pop culture references being pressed down and, well, crushed – into an iPad.

The ad intended to highlight the iPad Pro’s design by metaphorically representing how it condenses various creative tools and experiences into one product. Instead, it conjured up imagery of “destruction of human experience”, and showed that even the biggest, most creative and innovative companies in the world can miss the mark.

Many Apple fans and critics felt that the ad was tone-deaf and did not align with the brand’s usually positive and uplifting message. Even celebrities noticed and commented: actor Hugh Grant retweeted the ad and wrote “The destruction of the human experience. Courtesy of Silicon Valley.”

Lesson: Make sure the metaphors and imagery in your ads align with your brand’s values, and consider how they’ll be received by your audience.

Pepsi’s “Live for Now” (2017)

Pepsi’s 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner aimed to promote unity and peace. However, it quickly became infamous for trivializing social justice movements.

The ad showed Jenner leaving a photo shoot to join a protest, ultimately resolving tensions by handing a can of Pepsi to a police officer, suggesting that a soft drink could solve deep-seated social and racial issues.

Lesson: Avoid oversimplifying complex social issues. Sensitivity and thorough understanding are crucial when addressing these topics in your ads. Also, using a celebrity is not always the answer – in this context, it did not feel authentic or resonate with the audience.

Peloton’s “The Gift That Gives Back” (2019)

Peloton’s holiday ad featured a woman documenting her year-long fitness journey after receiving a Peloton bike from her husband.

The ad aimed to inspire by showcasing the benefits of using Peloton and the joy of giving a gift that could be transformative, but it was viewed as sexist and out of touch, and the woman looked legitimately scared in some frames, and critics suggested it promoted unhealthy relationships and body image issues.

In response to the backlash, Peloton stated, “Our holiday spot was created to celebrate that fitness and wellness journey. While we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial, we are encouraged by — and grateful for — the outpouring of support we’ve received from those who understand what we were trying to communicate.”

Lesson: Be sensitive to gender roles and body image perceptions in your advertising. Understand how your message might be perceived by different demographics. And if you are looking for ways to improve your messaging, here are 15 ad copy tips from marketing experts.

Gillette’s “We Believe” (2019)

In response to the “Me Too” movement, Gillette launched a campaign addressing toxic masculinity and encouraging men to hold each other accountable. The ad featured various scenarios depicting bullying, harassment, and other behaviors typically associated with toxic masculinity, urging men to step up and be better.

Gillette ad we believe the best men can be 2019 controversial ads

While some praised the ad for its bold stance, others felt it was too accusatory and politically charged, leading to polarized opinions and significant backlash.

Lesson: While taking a stand can differentiate a brand, you need to consider your audience and anticipate potential reactions. Balance your message to avoid alienating segments of your customer base.

Bloomingdale’s “Spike Your Best Friend’s Eggnog” (2015)

Bloomingdale’s holiday catalog featured an ad with the text, “Spike Your Best Friend’s Eggnog When They’re Not Looking”. It is difficult to understand what led to this campaign and messaging. The ad likely aimed to be playful and humorous, aligning with festive cheer and holiday mischievousness, but this ad was heavily criticized for seemingly promoting date rape culture, leading to widespread and harsh backlash.

Bloomingdales ad spike your best friends eggnog 2015 controversial ads

Lesson: Always review your ad copy for unintended messages. What may seem like a harmless joke can be interpreted very differently and cause significant harm to your brand.

Bumble’s “Celibacy is Not the Answer” (2024)

Bumble recently launched a series of billboards that seemed to poke fun and joke that abstinence and celibacy could be a long-term dating solution.

The campaign was met with immediate backlash, especially from women, who felt the messaging was shaming and offensive. Critics argued it trivialized important personal choices and experiences.

Bumble ad celibacy 2024 controversial ads

Lesson: Here is another example of a mistake repeated into the present day: consider the context of your company’s mission, the social climate you are in, and how your message might fit (or not fit) into the present moment.

Benetton’s “Unhate” Campaign (2011)

Benetton’s “Unhate” campaign featured digitally manipulated images of world leaders kissing each other, including Barack Obama, Hu Jintao, Pope Benedict XVI, Angela Merkel, and many others. Imagine seeing this image 50 feet high on a billboard:

Benneton ad unhate campaign 2011 controversial ads

While the campaign drew significant attention, it was also criticized for being disrespectful and overly provocative. Many felt it crossed a line by manipulating the images of real individuals without their consent.

Lesson: Shock value can backfire and even alienate your customers. Make sure your imagery respects cultural and political sensitivities.

Dove’s “Before and After” Ad (2017)

Dove faced backlash for an ad that appeared to show a Black woman transforming into a white woman after using their product. The ad aimed to celebrate diversity and the transformative effects of Dove’s products but was poorly executed and seen as racially insensitive and perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

The negative reaction was swift and widespread, and Dove was forced to respond with an apology: “We deeply regret the offense caused by this ad. Our intention was to convey that Dove is for every woman, but we got it wrong.”

Lesson: Test your ads with diverse focus groups to catch potential insensitivities. Diversity in your marketing teams can also help avoid mistakes like these.

Nivea’s “White Is Purity” (2017)

Similar to Dove, Nivea’s deodorant ad featured the slogan “White is purity.” The ad was intended to highlight the product’s purity and effectiveness, using the color white as a metaphor.

Nivea Ad white is purity 2017 controversial ads

The slogan was perceived as racially insensitive, with critics arguing it seemed to promote white supremacy. Nivea quickly pulled the ad after receiving significant backlash.

Lesson: Avoid messaging that can be interpreted as racially or culturally insensitive. Context matters, and what works in one market may not be appropriate in another.

H&M’s “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” (2018)

H&M was criticized for featuring a Black child wearing a hoodie with the text “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.”

The ad was likely intended to be playful and trendy, fitting with H&M’s youthful branding, but was viewed as racially insensitive and led to widespread backlash, including boycotts and celebrity criticism.

Many felt it perpetuated harmful racial stereotypes. H&M issued a statement: “We apologize for offending people with this image. Our intent was not to create an insensitive or racially offensive ad.”

Lesson: Be vigilant about racial sensitivities in your advertising. What might seem like an innocent design can have severe implications if not carefully considered.

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick Campaign (2018)

Nike’s campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, known for his protests against racial injustice, sparked significant controversy. It aimed to align Nike with social justice causes, leveraging Kaepernick’s polarizing figure to make a bold statement.

Nike ad colin kaepernick believe in something 2018 controversial ads

Nike stood by their decision and released this statement: “We believe in the power of sport to move the world forward and support the right of athletes to advocate for what they believe in.”

While the campaign resonated with many who supported Kaepernick’s stance, it also led to boycotts and public backlash from those opposed to his protests.

Lesson: Align your brand with causes that reflect your values and be prepared for divided opinions. Authenticity is crucial, but so is understanding the potential impact on your customer base.

Burger King’s “Women Belong in the Kitchen” (2021)

On International Women’s Day 2021, Burger King UK tweeted “Women belong in the kitchen” to promote a culinary scholarship for female chefs.

The tweet was intended to highlight gender disparity in the culinary industry, but the provocative phrasing completely overshadowed the message, leading to immediate outcry and accusations of sexism.

Lesson: There are holidays or special occasions that can serve as opportunities for great “marketing moments” for your brand. During these times, you need to be timely – but also tactful and considerate. Craft your messages carefully, especially on sensitive topics. Shock tactics can easily backfire and obscure your intended message.

Dolce & Gabbana’s “Eating with Chopsticks” Ads (2018)

Dolce & Gabbana released a series of ads in China showing a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks.

The ads aimed to be humorous and highlight cultural fusion, but ended up perpetuating stereotypes and being culturally insensitive.

This led to a massive backlash and calls for boycotts in China. These ads were released ahead of their Shanghai fashion show, which was reportedly cancelled after this advertisement aired.

This led to a massive backlash and calls for boycotts in China. These ads were released ahead of their Shanghai fashion show, which was reportedly cancelled after this advertisement aired.

Lesson: Cultural sensitivity is critical in global marketing. Avoid stereotypes and ensure your ads respect the customs and norms of your target audience.

Airbnb’s “Floating World” Email (2017)

Airbnb sent out a seemingly fun, aspirational email until you account for the context in which it was sent: during Hurricane Harvey, a deadly hurricane causing significant damage, and widely considered one of the costliest in U.S. history ($155 billion in damages).

Airbnb ad floating world 2017 controversial ads

The email was intended to promote Airbnb’s unique stays with whimsical language about “floating worlds” and “staying above water.”

Lesson: Double-check (maybe triple-check!) your campaigns, and review in the context of the current social and economic climate. Consider how your ads will be perceived in the context of ongoing issues and events.

What can we learn from these controversial ads?

It is easy to critique these ads in hindsight, and these ads offer a wealth of lessons for marketers and creatives alike. Always consider the broader social and cultural implications of your campaigns, involve diverse perspectives in the creative process, and anticipate any potential fallout before your ads go live. By learning from past controversial ads, you can create impactful, respectful, and effective ads that resonate positively with your audience. And if you’re looking for ways to further improve your ad performance, make sure to try Fraud Blocker’s 7-day free trial and see how much money we can save you.
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