5 lessons to learn from failed advertising campaigns

Tue 1 Dec 2020

Despite multi-million pound budgets, large teams of market researchers, and years of experience, even the biggest advertising agencies fail sometimes. Here are some of the lessons we can learn from their recent mistakes.

1. Don’t exploit real-life suffering

In one of the most controversial adverts of 2017, Kendall Jenner managed to magically unite protesters and law enforcement officers by handing one of the police officers a can of Pepsi. During a time when politically charged Black Lives Matter protests frequently ended in tear gas, violence, and arrests, the advert caused outrage on social media and quickly made headline news for all the wrong reasons. Withdrawing the advert, the company said in a statement to the Associated Press, “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologise.”


2. Remember that context is important

A culturally insensitive Facebook advert from German skincare brand Nivea caused almost as much outrage as the Pepsi commercial after it was released with the tagline ‘White is Purity.’ The advert was geographically targeted at the firm’s Middle Eastern followers, where the colour black is linked with strength and the colour white with purity. However, viewed through Western eyes, the advert came across as racist and offensive. Unfortunately for Nivea, the situation was made worse when the advert was picked up by alt-right social media accounts and reposted with photos of Hitler and appropriated alt-right mascot Pepe the frog. Nivea immediately withdrew the advert and apologised, but from a marketing perspective the damage was already done.


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3. Body shaming is unacceptable

In 2015, weight-loss company Protein World launched a campaign featuring an Australian bikini model with the tagline ‘Are you beach body ready?’ Despite nearly 400 complaints that it objectified women and was socially irresponsible, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority gave the campaign the green light. Unlike Pepsi and Nivea, Protein World defiantly refused to apologise and instead of withdrawing its campaign the company expanded it to the US market. The adverts met a similar response in New York and many of the subway posters were defaced with stickers that read ‘this oppresses women’.


4. Don’t inject politics into retail

When Starbucks attempted to spark a national conversation about race relations in its 2015 ‘Race Together’ campaign, the company became an international laughing stock. Its two-pronged approach of having baristas write the phrase on Starbucks cups and encouraging employees to engage their customers in conversations about the topic was a dismal failure and prompted a huge social media backlash. Appropriating a serious social issue for economic gain is rarely a good idea, and anything that slows down the length of time it takes for commuters to pick up their morning coffees is guaranteed to meet with resistance.


5. Word choice can make or break a campaign

Checking a campaign to ensure that none of the language can be misinterpreted is essential, as Adidas marketing managers found to their cost last year. An email praising runners who had ‘survived’ the 2017 Boston Marathon met with disbelief and accusations of insensitivity in the wake of the terrorist attack that killed three people and injured more than 250 runners and spectators at the same event in 2013. Adidas apologised for the email, admitting that its choice of words was ‘insensitive’.


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