Have you ever seen an advert that seemed not thought-out at all? Even the largest global brands are responsible for releasing tasteless ads that make you cringe.
Whether the ad features poor messaging, a lack of creativity, misfortunate graphic design, or gross spelling mistakes, there are dozens of ads that will make you wonder, “What were they thinking?”
Following are 23 “badvertising” examples to learn from.
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Todd Davis, the CEO of LifeLock, thought he was smart. He was famous for putting up internet ads featuring his real Social Security number, with captions such as, “I’m Todd Davis. This is my Social Security number,” along with the claim that LifeLock makes your personal information “useless” to criminals.
Guess what? Identity thieves used Todd’s Social Security number to commit identity theft over a dozen times!
From taking out personal loans in his name to starting an AT&T account and racking up thousands of dollars in charges, the ad was a gigantic flop and embarrassment.
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Reese’s releases an eccentric ad to promote its Reese’s Pieces candy. The video ad, titled “Love Child,” featured a woman in labor.
We see the woman pushing and struggling, only to give birth to a giant Reese’s Pieces candy with a face on it.
Needless to say, the video is just freaky and a bit unsettling.
Why did Reese’s think it was a good idea? Who knows.
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Renowned Scottish singer Susan Boyle was excited about her new album release, and her team came up with what they thought was the perfect Twitter advertising campaign hashtag: #SusanAlbumParty.
Of course, people usually spell hashtags without uppercase letters, and #susanalbumparty can have a very different meaning depending on how you look at it.
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In 1992, Hoover – the vacuum machine company – ran one of the worst ad campaigns in the history of advertising.
Faced with the possibility of a recession, excess products, and decreasing sales rates, someone in the advertising team thought it would be a good idea to offer two free flight tickets to the US to any UK customer who bought over £100 worth of Hoover products.
Hoover partnered with a defunct airline company called JSI Travel to offer the deal. Hoover never expected much engagement; it figured that people who did respond would buy hundreds of pounds worth of Hoover products.
Instead, people saw it as an easy way to get a round-trip ticket to the United States by spending only £100, many times less than the price of a round-trip ticket.
Despite the difficult conditions Hoover put in place to qualify for the deal, Hoover wasn’t able to keep up with the demand, and the European branch of Hoover eventually went out of business.
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One hospital wanted to urge people to work together to reduce bacteria in the hospital and decrease the chances of infecting others. Apparently, it thought it was a good idea to use an actual image of people holding hands together – a sure way to spread germs!
Even worse, the caption read, “Join Hands to Make Our Hospital ‘Infection Free’,” with “Infection Free” in quotation marks.
Wang Computers was a major computer company in the 1970s. Its advertising motto was Wang Cares.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? There was just a small problem – its British branches refused to use its motto, which initially perplexed some management team members in the US.
Of course, Wang Cares kind of sounds like the British derogatory slang word, “wankers.” It’s a classic example of international advertising gone wrong.
Irish Mist is a whiskey-based liqueur produced in Dublin, Ireland. Its golden color and unique taste make it popular in Ireland, but when the company attempted to launch sales in Germany, they were dismayed by the lackluster response.
Of course, if they had spoken German, they would have understood that “mist” translates to “manure” or “dung” in German, and they would have chosen a different name for the German market.
Rolls-Royce, for example, changed its Silver Mist model to Silver Shadow once they realized the meaning of mist in German.
Lipton’s marketing team thought they came up with a creative way to get people to buy more tea packs: by putting a coupon for a free pack in every pack. It’s classic buy-one-get-one-free advertising.
Sounds good, right? There was one glaring problem – if every single pack contains a coupon, people only have to buy one to continue getting endless packs of tea.
Every new pack they will get will include yet another coupon for free tea!
Instead of being a “buy one, get one free” advertising campaign, it turned into a “buy one, get unlimited” campaign. Lipton eventually wised up to its mistake and stopped putting those coupons in its tea packs.
Of course, there was a simple and logical way to get around that problem. For example, the company could have added the coupon to just a small percentage of its tea packs or only added it to tea packs in a limited production.
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In 2015, Airbnb was upset about the hotel taxes placed on the company and its hosts who were renting out their apartments in San Francisco. Airbnb likes to think of itself as something other than a hotel service, so it was understandably annoyed at having to pay $12 million in taxes.
The company started running ads targeting the San Francisco government.
The ads were made to seem like they were addressed to the public library system, parking enforcement unit, and other governmental organizations. One ad read, “Dear Public Library System, we hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep the library open later. Love, Airbnb.”
We can understand Airbnb’s frustration, but the ads were passive-aggressive and in bad taste. There are other ways to raise awareness about heavy tax rates without coming across as jerks.
Besides, people didn’t sympathize much with Airbnb. Regular taxpayers were paying their taxes, so why shouldn’t a large company like Airbnb?
The ads made Airbnb look bad, and the company later apologized.
McDonald’s discontinued Arch Deluxe burger is a classic example of assumptions made in advertising that were terribly wrong. The burger was designed for grownups in an effort to shift the image of McDonald’s from one being geared to kids and families to a company that catered to sophisticated urbanites.
McDonald’s ran ads touting the burger as “The Burger With the Grown Up Taste.” The ads extolled the virtues of the Arch Deluxe and its premium, higher-quality products.
However, it was a massive fail. The ads didn’t manage to attract anyone to buy the burger, despite $200 million spent on the Arch Deluxe ad campaign.
In the end, McDonald’s had to pull the burger from its menu. Why?
There are a few things McDonald’s got wrong in its ads. First of all, it shifted from what made it so effective as a company in the first place – fast food – to trying to be something it wasn’t.
McDonald’s built its brand around convenience. The quality of the products wasn’t as important to its consumers – the fast food eater – as were the low prices of its products, the ease of getting them, and the “fast” aspect of it.
People who eat fast food do so because they know they can drive up to the drive-through without getting out of their car and get a full meal quickly at a low price.
McDonald’s ads were confusing to the fast food consumer. The Arch Deluxe ads talked about premium ingredient quality – but its target base wasn’t interested in that.
The burger may very well have been a higher-quality food item. With that, however, came longer wait times and higher prices.
McDonald’s was trying to appeal to sophisticated urbanites, but those people weren’t interested in McDonald’s and its ads in the first place.
In 1991, a Swedish property management company called Locum came up with a new advertising logo, which it proudly featured on a Christmas card it sent to customers.
The new logo was simple: it replaced the “o” in Locum with a heart. It was designed to be sweet and simple, but while it might not have meant anything in Swedish, English-speaking customers were in for a little shock.
After all, “l❤cum” looks a little like “I love semen.”
While the company may argue that you need to have a dirty mind to see that, it seems pretty obvious to many others. That’s why it’s important to think of how your messaging may be perceived before deciding on a new slogan or logo.
Advertising mishaps don’t just occur on the internet. Bad ads can be found in newspapers, magazines, and even on billboards.
One particular billboard advert was a lesson in how bad ads can lead to public humiliation. The ad was supposed to tout the great things about the public schools in South Bend, Indiana.
Unfortunately for the advertiser, they forgot one letter in a very crucial spot. Instead of reading, “The 15 Best Things About Our Public Schools,” it read, “The 15 Best Things About Our Pubic Schools,” according to Dangerous Minds.
Whether the fault was with the advertiser or the company putting up the billboards, there was an obvious lack of quality control. Someone was careless, so let that be a lesson to you to always double-check your ads before they go live, online or offline.
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Pepsi Number Fever refers to a gross advertising campaign blunder that Pepsi made in the Philippines in 1992.
Lottery advertising is a valid and effective form of advertising. By giving out a small number of prizes, you can incentivize a large number of people to buy your products.
Pepsi advertised that it was going to print codes in soda bottle caps. There would be various small prizes and one grand prize of one million pesos, which amounted to 23 years’ worth of earning the daily minimum wage.
Winning codes were announced every day, and it all seemed to go as planned. Pepsi’s advertising campaign was incredibly successful, with many people buying soda bottles and tuning into the nightly television news to see the winning numbers.
However, Pepsi accidentally printed 800,000 caps with the winning grand prize code one day (although only two of those caps had the required security code to redeem the prize).
Of course, people were incredibly upset and disappointed. There were riots that led to the death of five people – quite a PR embarrassment.
When you decide to run any kind of advertising campaign, you need to make sure that you don’t mess up what comes after. You can’t promise to give people one million pesos if they have the winning code, only to not follow through – while it was obviously a mistake, that’s not the way many disappointed “winners” saw it.
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That isn’t the only time Pepsi seriously messed up its advertising campaign in a foreign country.
Pepsi’s advertising slogan in the 1960s was, “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation.” The slogan was meant to revitalize Pepsi’s image and target the younger audience, branding Pepsi as the soda company of the future.
Such a turnaround was vital for the company. Coca-Cola, its most significant competitor, was often seen as the superior and more sophisticated soda, while Pepsi was seen as a product for the common folk and less deserving.
While the campaign was generally successful, it faced a major obstacle in China, where the company allegedly mistranslated it into something of the effect that Pepsi would bring back drinkers’ ancestors from the grave.
It’s a classic example of something lost in translation, which is a common issue in multinational advertising.
Anus burgers seem to have become more popular around the country. In one post on iFunny, we see a billboard outside a McDonald’s advertising for people to “Try a bacon and cheese anus burger.”
Of course, the sign wasn’t originally supposed to advertise an “anus burger.” Instead, it was meant to advertise Angus burgers, which are burgers made from Angus cattle and popular in the fast food industry.
Whether the store owners forgot to put up the “g” in the word Angus is unknown. More likely, however, is that vandals couldn’t pass up the opportunity to remove the “g” and have a sick joke at the store’s expense.
What can we learn from this? Bad advertising can occur when you put up physical ads that are screaming to be vandalized.
There’s nothing those fast food restaurants could have done besides fixing the issue or advertising another kind of burger instead of the Angus one.
It’s possible not only to mess up your spelling but also your graphics. Consider this ad from New York & Company, featuring its 7th Avenue Soft Jogger.
The ad featured a model wearing the soft, comfortable, high-end, luxurious jogger. There was just one factor New York & Company seemed to have overlooked: the model’s right foot wasn’t attached to her leg.
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In an even worse case of Photoshop failure, Target’s bikini model ad featured a girl with an unnaturally bent arm and a weird spike under her armpit.
These Photoshop fails highlight the importance of hiring a good graphic designer who knows what they are doing and pays attention to detail. However, fault also lies with the person who approved the ad to go live in the first place.
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In 2009, Microsoft took an ad that it previously ran in the US and republished it in Poland. The ad featured three people, including an African-American man.
In the Polish version, Microsoft edited out the African-American man and photoshopped a Caucasian man into the ad instead.
Now, we’re not going to focus on the ethics of that at the moment. That’s not the issue on hand.
What is the issue on hand is that although Microsoft photoshopped another man’s face into the ad, it forgot to photoshop the original man’s hand. The end result was an ad featuring a Caucasian man with an African-American’s hand, which was quite disturbing.
If you’re going to Photoshop something, do it right!
Mitt Romney ran for president more than once, and there’s no surprise that he never won, considering how his advertising team overlooked such an obvious spelling mistake that simply made his candidacy look laughable.
His iPhone app featured a huge ad calling for a “A Better Amercia” in big letters. Where and what exactly is “Amercia,” and why does it need to be better?
Nobody really knew, but “Amercia” became a trending topic on Twitter.
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DuPont’s cellophane ad is known as one of the weirdest ads of all time. It’s not cringe, but it’s just kind of… strange.
Cellophane was a wrap product produced by DuPont. Like plastic cling film, you could use it to wrap food items.
However, it was not made of plastic, but from wood and plant materials.
In the 1950s, DuPont apparently thought that it was a bright idea to advertise its product by depicting babies wrapped in Cellophane.
It wasn’t a one-off thing, either. DuPont ran numerous ads over the years depicting babies in cellophane, including a picture of twins wrapped in cellophane with the caption, “Good things are twice as good in cellophane.”
Of course, everyone loves looking at cute babies. At the same time, nobody wants to see them wrapped in cling film.
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“Got Milk?” is an advertising campaign created by the California Milk Processing Board in the 1990s, in conjunction with Goodby Silverstein and Partners (an ad agency).
The ad (later licensed for use by private food companies) was designed to encourage people to drink more milk, but it was often out of line.
For example, one ad showed a businessman insulting someone over the phone, only to get hit by a truck a few seconds later. He then goes to hell, where he finds himself with a massive plate of cookies and no milk to wash them down with.
Most of the ads were intended to be humorous.
The phrase itself is grammatically incorrect. However, that’s not the worst of the campaign, which was overall actually a success in increasing milk consumption in California.
It all went haywire when the milk board decided to expand its campaign into Spanish to target the Spanish-speaking community. The literal translation of “Got Milk?” actually means, “Are you lactating?”
Fortunately, the mistake was caught early, and different taglines were introduced for the Spanish language campaigns.
One Mother’s Day, someone at Kmart thought they were a genius for combining the words Mama and Namaste into Mamaste. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize that in Spanish, it translates into, “Did you suck it,” with the connotations of performing oral sex.
When Schweppes launched its tonic water in Italy, it apparently somehow mistranslated it into “toilet water” instead of “tonic water.”
In another fail, HSBC mistranslated its “Assume Nothing” campaign to “Do Nothing” in several countries.
These advertising fails show the importance of choosing a high-quality translator who not only knows the language but also understands slang words and cultural differences.
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I hope you enjoyed these bad advertising examples, from weird Photoshops to cringe videos to spelling mistakes to lost in translation blunders.
Hopefully, you’ll learn to double-check everything and consider how your ads will be perceived by the consumer before running them.
Tom loves to write on technology, e-commerce & internet marketing.
Tom has been a full-time internet marketer for two decades now, earning millions of dollars while living life on his own terms. Along the way, he’s also coached thousands of other people to success.