10 Brands and Businesses That Got Their Marketing Horribly Wrong

10 Brands and Businesses That Got Their Marketing Horribly Wrong main image

As any marketing student knows, there’s nothing more dangerous than a campaign that attracts controversy for all the wrong reasons. Brands and businesses are always under great scrutiny and it now doesn’t take much for something to antagonize people, go viral on Twitter or Instagram and drag a company’s name through the mud.

Even with the best of intentions and marketing teams consisting of hundreds of top graduates, the world’s largest brands still make mistakes. Whether it’s allegations of racism, sexism or completely misidentifying the audience for their product, these errors are often hard to believe.

Here are 10 of some of the biggest marketing mistakes from the world’s top brands.

Heineken's tagline mistake

While marketing its light beer, Heineken started using the tagline ‘sometimes, lighter is better’.

Although the tagline is inoffensive by itself, the 30-second TV ad showed a bartender sliding a beer past three black people to a lighter-skinned woman.

Many dubbed the TV ad racist (understandably), with Chance the Rapper leading the charge, tweeting about how “terribly racist” the commercial was to his more than 7 million Twitter followers. Having a prominent voice amplify criticism of your marketing campaign in this way is one of the quickest ways for your brand to come under pressure. 

Is that…blackface?

Surely as a designer you’d think (and know) to steer far away from anything that could ever resemble a racial slur. Unfortunately, Prada and Gucci didn’t quite get the message and designed some risqué products which provoked the wrong kinds of question.

In February 2019, Gucci pulled a wool balaclava jumper from stores after many people pointed out it resembled blackface. The $890 black sweater went up and around the mouth and featured thick red lips around the cut-out.

Similarly, luxury fashion house Prada had to withdraw merchandise products – part of its Pradamalia line – after images surfaced of a Manhattan storefront with merchandise depicting monkey-like figures with black faces and large red lips.

Prada said in a statement that the Pradamalia products depict "imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface."

These products were poorly designed and didn’t add value to the associated brands. Advice to all: think things through.

Dolce & Gabbana's chopsticks ad

Luxury fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana may have dodged associations with blackface, but an advertising campaign that drew heavily on ethnic stereotypes faced similar accusations of racism.

The series of ads showed a Chinese model trying – and failing – to eat different Italian dishes with chopsticks. People were left outraged over the suggestion Chinese people lacked refinement and an understanding of other cultures.

Consumers slammed the brand with boycotts and accusations of racism. Stefano Gabbana and his co-founder Domenico Dolce have since apologized but had to cancel their Shanghai fashion show – costing the brand millions.    

Dove’s ‘body positive’packaging

Dove is known for promoting positive body image – namely with its “Real Beauty” campaign, showing real women in a positive light.

The empowering campaign has been so successful that it’s been running for 15 years, which further solidifies the company’s efforts in striving to reinforce positive body image for women.

Alas, sometimes a brand can get it wrong even after getting it so right. In May 2017, Dove released seven, limited edition bottles consisting of abstract shapes designed to resemble a range of female body shapes, but the campaign went down like a lead balloon.

Unfortunately, the packaging sent the wrong message, and instead of reinforcing strong body image, it increased self-consciousness. In marketing, brands need to keep a strong sense of their message or risk losing the confidence of customers both old and new.   

Department of Education

Typos happen – especially when tweeting to coincide with a particular day or event – it’s not always a big deal. However, it is a big deal when you’re the Department of Education in the United States.  

In February 2017, the DoE tweeted a W.E.B. Du Bois quote with his name misspelled. Then the apology that followed misspelled ‘apology’. Maybe it’s third time the charm?

This faux pas didn’t work wonders for controversial Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. As a social media fail, this one brought some heat to the department for sure, especially given DeVos had already faced repeated criticism for being unqualified for the role.

Amateur mistakes may not be as dangerous as some of the ones we’ve focused on above, but they can quickly erode trust if people already have a reason to doubt you.

A woman is not a car

An Audi ad in July 2017 for their latest car featured a scene from a Chinese wedding, with a mother-in-law walking to the altar to check out her soon-to-be-daughter-in-law.

After pinching her lips, pulling her ears, examining her teeth and tongue, she nods in approval, with the tagline reading, ‘an important decision must be made carefully’.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone found it comfortable that the advert was treating a woman as an object and reducing her value to being similar to a car made it even worse. While Audi hoped the advert was humorous, it ended up being offensive.

Estee Lauder shade

The world-renowned make-up brand released a new line of foundation: Double Wear Nude Water Fresh Makeup SPF25.

Although the company released over 30 shades of the product, more than half were geared toward women with very pale, light skin, leaving very few options for women of color.

In a world filled with many races and skin tones, make-up brands should be catering to all, not just the few. Estee Lauder screwed up here as it sent a clear message to customers about who the brand is, and isn't, catering to.

Victoria’s Secret faux pas

Ed Razek, chief marketing officer at Victoria’s Secret parent company, L Brands, said during an interview with Vogue that the retailer has no plans to add larger sizes to its lingerie range.

He told Vogue in November 2018, “We market to who we sell to, and we don’t market to the whole world.”

These comments understandable attracted criticism, but Razek doubled down, also saying that transsexuals shouldn’t be Victoria’s Secret models. Why? “Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special.”

Twitter users immediately called Razek out for his comments, as did celebrities and other lingerie companies.

H&M isn’t king of the jungle

In January 2018, clothing retailer H&M got into very hot water after casting an African-American boy to model its new hoodie with the message “Coolest Monkey in The Jungle”.

Following the incident, H&M released an apology stating, “Our position is simple and unequivocal — we have got this wrong and we are deeply sorry."

Many people didn’t appreciate the apology, including rapper G-Eazy who terminated his relationship with H&M via an Instagram post, saying: "Over the past months I was genuinely excited about launching my upcoming line and collaboration with @HM... Unfortunately, after seeing the disturbing image yesterday, my excitement over our global campaign quickly evaporated, and I've decided at this time our partnership needs to end."

Similarly, R&B star The Weeknd told the world via social media of his decision to end his relationship with the brand.

Snapchat’s tone-deaf Rihanna ad

Domestic violence is no laughing matter – ethical, kind-hearted people know this.

Snapchat, however, clearly doesn’t. The app ran a distasteful ad in March 2018 asking users if they’d rather slap Rihanna or punch Christ Brown – referencing the 2009 incident when Brown violently assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna – which subsequently saw the company lose $800 million from its share price.

The company later described the approval and publication of this ad – part of a game called “Would You Rather” – an ‘oversight’.

Rihanna took to Instagram—Snapchat’s rival—and used Instagram Stories to post a lengthy statement calling out Snapchat for intentionally shaming victims of domestic violence. Her fans responded and deleted Snapchat in droves. No one messes with Ri-Ri.

Written by Niamh Ollerton

Niamh is Assistant Editor of TopMBA.com, creating and editing content for an international MBA student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of the business world.  

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