Sometimes a marketing campaign just doesn't work. Maybe you chose the wrong venue or the wrong medium or the wrong time of year. All forgivable. Sometimes, however, it’s much deeper than that: You chose the wrong message. Less forgivable.
On these rare occasions, your brand’s storytelling doesn’t just fail; it blows up in your face. Here are eight examples of times when a marketing campaign was an utter disaster and how you can learn to avoid such mistakes for your clients.
1) The Time Levi Claimed Hotness Comes in All Sizes
Sounds like an awesome message for a clothing company, proclaiming that no matter what your size, you are welcome in the Levi tent. The message was the right all-inclusive, go-girl vibe, but the picture that went along with that message was a complete and utter failure. The women in the image were all stick-thin, exactly the opposite of whom the marketing message was meant for.
Lesson: Make sure your images match your message.
2) The Time McDonald’s Got Embarrassed on Twitter
What a cool concept: Invite people to share their stories of why they love your restaurant with a certain hashtag. However, it’s a lot less cool when people hijack that hashtag and start using it to complain about your restaurants and your food. That’s what happened to McDonald’s with the #McDStories campaign. Instead of people tweeting about their enjoyable experiences, they inundated McDonald’s with criticism.
Lesson: Be realistic about your brand. The biggest mistake McDonald’s made was kicking off the campaign with a tweet about making its burgers with pride. Let’s be serious though; it’s McDonald’s.
3) The Time Amazon Creeped Everyone Out
The new Amazon Echo is sort of like the cylindrical version of Siri: It can answer your questions, turn on your music, or control your other devices. Neat idea. However, releasing a nearly 4 minute YouTube ad about its functions wherein the device appeared weird and kind of creepy was a mistake.
Just hours after Amazon released its ad, a parody version came out that was really funny and racked up more than 3 million views in a few hours. Suddenly Amazon Echo wasn’t the story; Amazon Echo parody was.
Lesson: Forget the focus groups. Have some real humans watch your ads and make sure they don’t have a creepy vibe before you release them.
4) The Time Huggies Questioned Dads’ Parenting Skills
When you sell diapers, you want to appeal to parents. You will not appeal to parents if you imply some of them are not up to the task of changing their babies' diapers. This is what Huggies did with a campaign called “Have Dad Put Huggies to the Test.” Its ads portrayed dads as imbeciles who are too busy watching TV to change their kids’ diapers. And it reassured viewers that Huggies are so strong the kids will be fine till mom comes home!
Lesson: Do not, repeat, do not rip on your target demographic.
5) The Time a Mattress Company Pretended to Shoot a Teen Girl
This is just unbelievably bad. A mattress company in India wanted to show how bouncy its product was, so it used a graphic to show how teenage girl Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for pursuing an education, bounced back from her terrible fate on a mattress. The agency behind the campaign quickly apologized, and the advertisement was pulled.
Lesson: Using more timely content can be a brilliant way to sell your brand, but don’t be crass. Commercializing a shooting is in poor taste.
6) The Time Kmart Made Its Employees Work on a Holiday
When you are accused of doing something not nice, sometimes it’s smarter just to ignore the complaints than to try to defend yourself. Kmart took to Twitter to answer people who complained that by opening on Thanksgiving, the store was putting profits above its employees who would have to work rather than spend the holiday with loved ones. Kmart tweeted that it was just trying to give its workers an opportunity to make some extra money.
Lesson: Do not engage, even if you really believe that silly nonsense you tweeted.
7) The Time an Oregon Radio Station Made a Racist Billboard
Just try to avoid racism in all forms, OK? It’s not only distasteful in daily life, but it’s particularly noticeable and despised when used in advertising. A billboard for a radio station in Oregon that said “We love you long time” was placed in Chinatown in Portland, and you can imagine the outrage.
Lesson: Even if you can justify that it’s just a little insensitive, that is not a good enough reason to use it in your branding.
8) The Time GM Used a Suicidal Robot
Addressing suicide in a marketing campaign is challenging. It’s usually best avoided, and it’s certainly not something you joke about. However, General Motors did just that with an ad -- in the Super Bowl, no less -- that depicted a despondent robot line worker killing itself after making a mistake on the job.
Lesson: Remember the advice that you shouldn't joke about sex, death, or taxes? Take it to heart.
What other lessons have you learned from times when brand storytelling has failed? You can share them in the comments section below.
Originally published Nov 24, 2014 4:00:20 AM, updated July 28 2017