6 Advertising Campaigns That Actually Hurt Sales

Ideas That Seemed Good on Paper, But Killed Business

Advertising has a number of jobs to do. It has to create awareness about a product, service, or brand. It can also add value to a product, making it more desirable. For instance, there is very little difference between the three major light beer brands, Coors Light, Miller Light, and Bud Light, as far as flavor goes. Consumers are buying the brand, which is built from advertising. And advertising also should inform. Here’s what this product or service does, and does well.

But by far the greatest role advertising plays is to increase sales. No advertising agency would ever pitch a campaign that knowingly hurt sales, or did not move the sales curve in the right direction. It would be suicide. However, ad campaigns fail all the time. And sometimes…they fail hard. Here are six of the biggest advertising fails that actually made the sales figures drop. 

1
Kenyan Runner – Just For Feet

Just For Feet
Just For Feet. Brightciove

It’s hard to know where to start with this abomination, shown during the 1999 Super Bowl. Put out there are part of a $7 million campaign that would actually give away a brand-new Hummer (remember those?), this 30-second spot was offensive on so many levels. For a start, the spot opens with a bunch of white hunters, in a Hummer of course, getting ready to hunt down a barefoot black Kenyan runner.

You read that correctly. White men hunting a black man. If that scenario was pitched at any meeting anywhere in America, the response would almost certainly be “stop right there, that’s awful!” But the Just For Feet marketing team liked it. After that, the men offer the runner a cup of drugged water, which he drinks, and passes out. Then they force a pair of sneakers onto his feet, and drive away. To add insult to injury, the runner is yelling “no! no!” and shaking his feet. Because he can’t figure out how to untie shoelaces. The response was unprecedented.

Chuck McBride, creative director of Wieden + Kennedy at that time, couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “The minute I saw it, I immediately went ‘Oh, shit,’ and I went, ‘This can’t go on.’ I just couldn’t believe that they had done this.” And famed advertising critic Bob Garfield, of Advertising Age, called the ad, “neo-colonialist … culturally imperialist, and probably racist. Have these people lost their minds?” The term Just For Racists was being spouted by people across the nation, and the reaction by the public was so bad, Just For Feet tried to sue the agency responsible, Saatchi and Saatchi, for $10 million. They later dropped the suit.

Just ten months later, in November 1999, Just For Feet filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, due to a combination of poor sales and accounting fraud. And by February 2000, Footstar Inc. purchased the Just For Feet name and the leases of 70 of its stores. Still, the damage had been done, and in 2004 Just For Feet stores closed forever.   More

2
The Spongemonkeys – Quiznos

Quiznos
Quiznos. YouTube

What do you get when you cross a delicious toasted sandwich with a weird-looking hamster-thing with bizarre teeth and no singing voice? Well, not surprisingly, you get a campaign that puts sales of those toasted treats into the toilet. And the ad agency that did them, The Martin Agency, should have known better.

This was clearly a case of jumping on an internet bandwagon without really doing your homework. The original piece that The Martin Agency adapted was called “We Love The Moon,” created for the site rathergood.com. It’s bizarre. It’s funny. It’s shareable. But…does it pair well with a food product? Do you look at those weird things and think they should be the pitchmen for a sub? Someone at The Martin Agency did. This was the result…and it was a disaster.

Although the ads got a ton of buzz, no one felt hungry after watching them. Before the little singing rodent creations, the ads for Quiznos concentrated on the toasted quality of the sandwiches, and had mouth-watering shots of the melted cheese coming out from the toaster. Sure, the rodent spots had some nice shots at the end, but the main takeaway was Quiznos = weird rat things. Sales plummeted. Store managers everywhere complained. The ads were quickly pulled. 

However, despite the awful performance of the ads, they are still beloved by people around the world.  More

3
That’s a Spicy Meatball! – Alka Seltzer

Alka Seltzer
Alka Seltzer. YouTube

You may be shocked to learn that one of the most memorable, and funny, ads of the modern advertising era was a failure, but it was. That’s a spicy meatball…but not a spicy result.

Now, the ad itself is fantastic. It’s creative. It’s wonderfully acted. It’s clever. It’s a wonderful piece of branding. What’s not to love? It has been featured on ad round-ups for decades, and that, in part, makes us all think it was a great ad. But, it did not help Alka Seltzer sell a lot of product. In fact, sales dropped.

The problem was partly due to the timing. The ad was ahead of its time. Remember, the ad revolution that started in the 1960s, aided by some fantastic work by DDB, was still evolving. The consumer had been brought up on ads that said “hey, buy this product, it’s great, here’s what it does, here’s a picture of it, and another, and here’s someone using it.” Smart ads with plot, and humor, were in short supply. And the 1969 Alka Seltzer spot spent almost all of the ad talking about meatballs and spaghetti sauce. So, the audience went out and bought meatballs and spaghetti sauce, and not boxes of Alka Seltzer.  More

4
The Energizer Bunny – Energizer Batteries

Energizer Bunny
Energizer Bunny. YouTube

You no doubt know the ad campaign in question. A pink toy rabbit banging a drum comes on the screen, and walks from one side to the other. It goes on and on an on. The first Energizer Bunny ad featured a hoard of pink toy rabbits banging drums, parodying a famous ad done by Duracell in 1983. And what did that feature? A bunch of pink rabbits banging drums. The one with the Duracell battery lasted the longest.

Think about that for a second. At the time, Duracell was huge. Some bright spark decided that the best way to differentiate the Energizer battery from Duracell was to mimic, almost to the letter, its famous ad. They even used the same pink color. When you see the ad, you think Duracell. It doesn't matter what the voice over it telling you. 

People naturally got confused. After all, one pink bunny looks very much like another, and Duracell had already firmly established itself as “that battery that makes the pink bunny last the longest.” So, when it came time to buy batteries, people went with Duracell way more than Energizer. All the additional Energizer Bunny battery ads only served to strength their competitor’s brand. There was even a study done about this, examining the negative impact of repeating similar brand claims. So, despite the ad being wildly popular, 40% of the people who saw it thought it was a Duracell ad. Energizer sales actually went down. 

Recently, the Energizer Bunny was featured in a serious of new ads, using a digitally-animated pink bunny. Perhaps now, many many years after the original Duracell ad has faded from memory, the Energizer Bunny can finally own the space. It's hard to recall a Duracell ad, and the Energizer Bunny has definitely earned a place in pop culture.  More

5
Bob Johnson – Holiday Inn

Holiday Inn
Holiday Inn. YouTube

Back in 1997, Holiday Inn locations underwent over $1 billion in renovations. Now that’s a fact worth bragging about, and to do it, Holiday Inn ran a spot called Bob Johnson during the Super Bowl. It turned out to be so offensive to people that it had to be pulled from the air after just a few days.

What was so bad about it? Well, let’s start with the content of the ad. It features a beautiful woman walking through a class reunion, while a snarky male voiceover tells you about the cosmetic surgery she’s had over the years. “New nose, $6,000. Lips, $3,000. New chest, $8,000.” So, right there you can see the tone being set. Then we see the woman talk to that guy who played Kenny Bania on Seinfeld. He struggles to place her, before finally realizing she used to be a he. It’s Bob Johnson. His face is one of confusion and disbelief – and not in a good way. And then the VO says, “It’s amazing the changes you can make with a few thousand dollars; imagine what Holiday Inns will look like when we’ve spent a billion.”

Immediately, the LGBTQ community was appalled. To make light of a life-changing event in such a crass way was tone deaf. The calls of complaint jammed the lines. But, aside from the awful ad, it was the focus that was wrong, too. Holiday Inns are known for great service, comfort, and convenience. But on this crass ad, they spent a ton of money on cosmetic changes, and they didn't even show them. And here's something else to ponder; will the customers who go to a Holiday Inn react as negatively as this guy did when he saw his old high school buddy Bob? A massive fail that did nothing but tarnish the hotel’s image.  More

6
California Raisins – The California Raisin Board

California Raisins
California Raisins. YouTube

A quick Google search for California Raisins yields almost 1.5 million results. Clearly, they had an impact and people remember them. The ads took some classic Motown and rock hits, and paired them with some Emmy-award winning stop motion animation. They even had a Billboard Hot 100 hit. And if you saw Straight Outta Compton recently, they were mentioned in that movie. What’s not to love, right? Well, The California Raisin Board had plenty of reasons to grumble.

The first issue was that the funky little raisin characters were not exactly attractive. A wrinkly rabbit dropping with arms and legs is hardly a great way to advertise a food product. But the bigger issue was that the characters and songs overshadowed the actual product. People were digging the ads, and loving the music and the charm of it all. But, they did not go out in droves and buy boxes of raisins. The ads didn’t really do anything to inform people about the uses of raisins, the nutritional benefit, or anything else. Instead, people just took away some cute singing raisin creatures and bought their records.

The campaign proved to be popular, and sales did increase slightly while the campaign ran. But, the price to do the production was exorbitant, costing the CRB almost twice their annual earnings. And when the ads were pulled from the air, sales actually dropped. Needless to say, this is another case of “nice ad, shame about the results.”  More