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Infamous Ad Fails

Nivea and Pepsi have us reminiscing on the bad old days




Like the old adage goes ‘all publicity is good publicity’. But no-one ever claimed that all advertising is good advertising. That’s because it isn’t. Sometimes it’s bad… very bad. Whether it’s down to hapless insensitivity – as we saw last week with Nivea declaring ‘white is purity’ in a display ad , geo-targetted towards Facebook users in the Middle East; or whether it’s absurd nonsense – like Pepsi’s recent ‘drink some cola and stop that police brutality!’ TV ad, it’s mystifying to ponder how these campaigns were ever signed off.


Still, when they’re not outright offensive, epic advertising fails can be quite amusing. Here are a few of our least-favourite and favourite-worst ads to make you wince, cringe or sob in despair.


Burlington Socks puts its foot in it



Forgive the tabloid-esque subtitle, but it’s very much on-theme in this instance. This 2013 ad  for Burlington Socks is quite extraordinary in its disregard for conventional sensibilities, as well as being pretty awful on every other level. The fact it’s still viewable on Burlington’s YouTube channel is baffling. What happens if you mix sexism, cheap innuendo and minors? You get an advertisement for socks, apparently. Whoever conceived this creative clearly never got over the hilarious ‘socks sells’ pun they first thought of when the brief landed, then somehow managed to stoop even lower.


LifeLock loses its key



Refreshingly, the failure of this 2011 campaign was not down entirely to advertising professionals – rather the product itself. Todd Davis – CEO of LifeLock: an identity theft protection company that specialises in the detection and prevention of fraudulent activity – had enough confidence in his product to print his own social security number on their ads. Amusingly, a handful of cheeky scamps (and/or career criminals) took up the implied challenge, taking out loans and opening accounts with his details. Davis was completely unaware until the debt collectors came knocking on his front door… which was presumably wide open.


Singapore bets against the bookies


We all know the house always wins. But in 2014, when the National Council for Problem Gambling in Singapore put out this image, as part of their anti-gambling campaign, they were taking a big gamble: selecting Germany as the team the boy’s future depended on. And Germany won. His dad won a fortune! The Council lost face. Despite this, they continued the campaign with another ad: with the boy expressing concern that despite Germany winning, his father continued to gamble with the family’s money. Irony upon irony…


Bic thinks like a man


When Bic’s South African division put out this ad, with the outright sexist copy ‘Look like a girl. Act like a lady. Think like a man. Work like a boss.’ it showed a complete lack of understanding of the female audience it was targeting. And when you consider this was an ad specifically produced to commemorate National Women Day 2015, it becomes clear that there will need to be National Women Days for decades to come.


Subway’s sexy sandwich scandal



Another crass display of sexist attitudes came from Subway’s Halloween campaign back in 2014, which was promptly pulled from YouTube when the complaints started to mount. Quite apart from the questionable implication that just putting ‘some veggies’ on a sub-roll constitutes healthy living, the underlying message – that women need to keep the weight off in order to look sexy in their Halloween outfits was, unsurprisingly, not well-received.


Benetton… and on and on and… off



Benetton’s ‘Unhate’ campaign started off as a bold brand building exercise intended to align with the idea of breaking down boundaries. Unfortunately, the series of executions took it a step too far, trying to bash down boundaries that may have needed to stay up. The depiction of Hu Jintao and Barrack Obama engaged in a kiss took it close to its limits (receiving complaints from the White House, but not forced action). Legal action was on the cards, however, when they tried Pope Benedict XVI kissing an Egyptian Imam. Indeed, when a clothing brand tries to take on mass religion, you wonder if that’s possibly over-reaching a bit?


Cymbalta -the anti-advert



This ad has become somewhat legendary in recent years and helps explain why advertisements for prescription drugs are only legal in 2 countries in the world. Cymbalta tried to advertise its treatment for depression in a one and a half minute advert. The trouble was, it took almost one minute to include the voiceover for all the legal lines – so no one paid any attention to the underlying ad, instead having to listen to an overwhelming array of possible side effects and legal warnings. So essentially, it became an advert focused largely on all the worst possible things about Cymbalta. Sorry to say it, but it’s an incredibly depressing advert.