The Biggest Advertising Failures of All Time

6 Marketing Moves That Crashed and Burned

Did you really do that?!
Did you really do that?!. Getty Images

Advertising is definitely not a science. You can have all the data in the world at your disposal, and employ some of the brightest minds in the industry, but you just cannot predict how well the campaign will do. Most of the time, agencies put work in front of focus groups, and will adjust the campaigns accordingly. Even then, the work will usually do ok, but it rarely hits it out of the park. And sometimes, well, it becomes a colossal failure that crashes and burns in the most spectacular fashion.

Over the decades, some campaigns have stood head and shoulders above the rest as disastrous for one reason or another. In some bizarre instances, the bad ads have actually helped sales; but there was no getting around the negative press and horrendous feedback these wrecks brought on the brands. Here are six of the biggest advertising and marketing failures of all time.

1. DiGiorno’s Pizza – #WhyIStayed

Sometimes a quick tweet on a trending hashtag or subject can be brand gold. Take, for example, the famous Oreo tweet “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark,” that was published during the 2013 Super Bowl blackout. It cost almost nothing to do, and yet garnered more publicity than the multi-million dollar spots that aired (or, didn’t, depending on the time) that year. However, social media is here one minute and gone the next, and that can sometimes present a problem. Namely, reacting to something quick enough to ride the wave, but carefully enough to get the tone and the meaning.



Sadly, DiGiorno’s pizza jumped on the trending #WhyIStayed hashtag without understanding it at all. #WhyIStayed was, and still is, a campaign to raise awareness of domestic abuse. Victims used two different tags—#WhyIStayed, and #WhyILeft—to highlight the many reasons they were trapped in a horrible situation for years.

For some, it was because they felt worthless, or feared being killed. Others, to protect the children. DiGiorno’s, however, misread it entirely and wrote “you had pizza.” Tone-deaf didn’t even come close to describing it, and the condemnation was swift and brutal. To make matters worse, the community manager responsible started personally replying to every tweet to apologize, using the official DiGiorno’s pizza account. It was a real mess that could have easily been avoided if just 60 seconds of research had been done.

2. Bud Light – #UpForWhatever

Another hashtag, another marketing disaster. This time the brand in question didn’t jump on a trending hashtag, but instead created its own. In theory, it’s an interesting idea; after all, after a few beers quite a few people would admit to being “up for whatever.” And the campaign itself made good on that idea, with a Super Bowl ad that gave one Bud Light drinker the night of his life. A limo ride with Reggie Watts, professional styling by Minka Kelly, going to a party with Don Cheadle, and playing ping-pong with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Awesome!

However, things took a nasty turn when the advertising campaign spilled over into other tactics.

In this case, the label on the bottle. The phrase “the perfect beer from removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night” may have sounded cool to those seeing the campaign in context. But as a stand-alone phrase on a bottle of beer, it goes into the territory of date rape and drunk girls getting into serious trouble. Budweiser apologized, and the offending bottles were removed from circulation. Still, the damage had been done.

3. Coca-Cola – New Coke

The year is 1985. The cola wars are in their prime, and both Pepsi and Coke were sparring it out in full blown ad campaigns. The Pepsi Challenge was proving to people that they actually preferred the taste of Pepsi to Coke in a blind taste test, and that worried the people at Coca-Cola. In fact, it worried them so much that they decided to change the product’s 100-year-old formula, launching New Coke to the world in April of 1985.

But the data was wrong. Yes, people initially liked the Pepsi flavor to Coke in a sip test. But overall, more people preferred the slightly less sweet Coke formula when drinking a whole can. Coke’s decision to up the sweetness failed miserably.

Millions of dollars has been spent on the reformulation, new packaging, and ad campaigns. And it was all for nothing. In fact, it tarnished the company’s image, with Pepsi getting a bump from the New Coke disaster. Just a few months later, in July, Coca-Cola announced that it had made a huge mistake, and old Coke was returning. Some people think it was a cunning move to get people loving Coke again, but with the amount of money wasted, and the stain on the company’s image, that is definitely not the case.

4. Starbucks – Race Together

The coffee giant’s CEO Howard Schultz is a polarizing figure to say the least. And over the years, he has involved his company in some rather controversial topics, including gay marriage and gun control. So it didn’t seem like a big leap to dive into the race relations pool. It was all kicked off with a full page ad in the New York Times, with an unmissable all black ad containing the phrases “Shall We Overcome?” and “RaceTogether,” along with the obligatory company logo. “What was Starbucks planning?” was on the minds of everyone who saw the ad. It became evident shortly after, if you visited any Starbucks, that the chain wanted to talk to its customers about race relations in the USA.

Behind the scenes, Schultz had been working with employees for months on the subject, and encouraged them to talk about racial issues with the customers. Big mistake. When you go into Starbucks, you want a coffee jolt and maybe a snack. You do not want to be confronted by a barista who asks you how you feel about affirmative action, or the disproportionate number of African Americans in prison. This is a topic that’s a hot button to say the least, and can cause extreme tension, and even physical actions. Luckily, after just six days, Schultz realized what a mistake he had made and pulled the Race Together campaign.

5. Ford – Edsel

On the 5th of September, 1957, Ford released a new car to the American public. This was going to be the big one. A car designed to be a premium experience for the middle class. A car with style, and refinement. A car that oozed sophistication and style. And Ford was so confident in its creation that is sunk over $250 million into the project (that’s roughly $2.1 billion in today’s money). The car was, of course, the infamous Edsel. It was a perfect storm of hubris, expectation, and ignorance. It all started with focus groups, and endless polls, which were designed to find out just what the American people wanted.

But bizarrely, the research was ignored in favor of designs that were already in the early stages of production. Then, there was the “please all of the people all of the time” mentality, resulting in 18 different variations of the Edsel being presented at launch. The data collected was also ignored when it came time to sell the cars, with scientifically formulated methods being dumped in favor of some very sketchy, “used car salesman” tactics. And of course, the first models pushed on the general public were not ready. They had oil leaks, sticking trunks and hoods, and a variety of buttons that the Hulk would have trouble pushing. To add insult to injury, the company kept trying to push different versions of the Edsel over the next few years, but no one wanted it. The car was considered a horrible piece of machinery, and at the end of the day Ford lost $350 million ($2.9 billion adjusted for inflation) on the doomed project.

6. Hoover – Free Flights

It’s not often that a marketing campaign sucks so badly that it brings the company to its knees, but this classic goof in 1992 did just that. Hoover, in the UK in particular, is a name synonymous with vacuuming. Indeed, many people say they are “hoovering” the living room, rather than vacuuming it. That kind of brand name recognition is like gold. So you would think it could withstand a marketing campaign that was a little off in the financial calculations. However, this went way beyond some crummy math. The idea was this: Hoover had a massive back catalog of ageing stock that it wanted to shift, and shift quickly. How do you get rid of a bunch of dated vacuum cleaners quickly? One bright spark at Hoover though the best way would be to offer the customers a deal they could not refuse—get two free return tickets to the USA when you purchase more than £100 ($135) in Hoover products.

If you’re scratching your head thinking “that’s an insane deal, how could they afford that?” the answer is, they couldn’t. Updated for inflation, it would the equivalent of spending just $236 to get around $1,500 worth of airfare. Or, Hoover was basically giving every customer over $1,250 for free. The general public flocked to get the Hoovers, and the demand was too much for the company to handle. Over 222,000 people managed to get their round trip tickets, and by the end of the promotion, Hoover was over £50 million ($68 million) in the whole. That would equate to around $120 million today. The company couldn’t handle that kind of loss, and the British division of Hoover was sold off to the Italian manufacturer Candy. The lesson learned here…maybe run your marketing idea past a few of the company’s accountants before committing to a project. Hoover has never fully recovered from the debacle.