Spactacular Advertising Flops, and Why They Failed

What Exactly Made These Ad Campaigns Crash and Burn?

Ad Blunder
Ad Blunder. Getty Images

Advertising and marketing is not like accounting, or architecture. There is no real right or wrong answer to a creative brief, or a client request. It all comes down to gut feelings, and sometimes, those feelings can send the brand into a tailspin for a while. Here are three examples of advertising and PR flops that had customers reeling. 

McDonald's Hummer Toys (2006)

Everyone knows that the McDonald's toys are based on the "nag factor." Kids will want the latest free toy with their lunch or dinner, and parents oblige.

Usually, it's a toy tied into a movie promotion, a video game, or some other big entertainment promotion. 

However, in August 2006, GM and McDonald's joined forces to give away 42 million toy Hummers in Happy Meals. GM hoped the promotion would help market its Hummer brand to parents through their children. A HummerKids Web site and new commercials were created for the campaign. At the same time, Hummer launched a new ad campaign for the H3.

You don't need to be psychic to know what happened next.

The controversy over the giveaway started before the first toy Hummer was handed out. Parents and environmental groups immediately voiced their displeasure over the giveaway, especially since both companies admitted they were trying to market the vehicle to parents through their children.

McDonald's addressed the situation, which then caused further controversy. A company blog post stated, "Looked at through children's eyes, the miniature Hummers are just toys, not vehicle recommendations or a source of consumer messages about natural resource conservation, greenhouse gas emissions, etc."

But when the blog's visitors clicked on the blog's comments link to share their own opinion, they noticed their comments never showing up. McDonald's clearly employed some kind of moderation system to remove any negative feedback, which only further infuriated customers. In turn, these commenters made sure to voice their outrage on other sites across the Internet.

The ill will and negative PR damaged the reputations of both Hummer (which is now an almost defunct brand), and McDonald's.

You'd think that McDonald's would have learned a valuable lesson from that mistake, but no. It was only a couple of months later when another giveaway took a bite out of McDonald's PR image. In October 2006, a promotion to give away 10,000 MP3 players branded with the McDonald's logo in Japan went awry when users found their free MP3 players came with 10 free songs and a Trojan virus! When they plugged them into their PCs, the virus stole their user names, passwords and other private info and sent the data to hackers. Back in 2006, when data sensitivity and ID theft was in its infancy, this was a serious concern. If it happened today, it could easily create a class-action lawsuit worth millions. 

GM's Do-It-Yourself Tahoe Ads (2006)

Consumer-generated ads (also know as UGC, or User Generated Content) are par-for-the-course in modern advertising campaigns. These days, corporations and advertisers have become very savvy to the possible negative side-effects of these kinds of interactive experiences.

However, back in 2006, things didn't always go as planned.

In another gaffe by GM, Chevrolet teamed with NBC's The Apprentice in March 2006 to launch a commercial contest for the Chevy Tahoe. Consumers could visit a special Chevrolet site, arrange video and music clips of the Tahoe how they wanted and add fonts to create their own commercials for the SUV. Sounds like a great idea, right? Well, not if you want to poke fun at the Tahoe, like many people were eager to do. 

Soon anti-SUV ads began popping up on the company's site. Chevrolet, perhaps trying to learn from the mistake McDonald's made with the Hummer comments, didn't remove the negative ads. And they became a catalyst for parody ads and vicious commentary that left a serious stain on the Tahoe brand. The buzz swept across the Internet, the contest backfired and Chevrolet learned how advertising shouldn't always be left in the hands of consumers. If you're going to give people the tools to make your brand look good, remember...they could also use them for bad. 

Sony's Black-And-White Bomb (2006)

Using people to convey a black and white message is a fine line to walk in advertising. The United Colors of Benetton campaigns have done it provocatively, causing both outrage and conversation. But they were successful, for the most part. However, Sony was not so fortunate.

In the summer of 2006, Sony learned that having a white woman holding a black woman by the jaw to promote its ceramic white Playstation Portable wasn't a very good idea. The billboard only ran in the Netherlands but the controversy sparked debates around the world. What was this trying to say? Was it a nod back to slavery, somehow saying the black woman was a possession of the white woman?

At first, Sony defended its billboard. The company said it only wanted to "highlight the whiteness of the new model or contrast the black and the white models." Clearly, that was some serious Monday-morning quarterbacking, and no-one was buying it. Later, Sony pulled the ad and apologized. As it should have. 

Intel's Poor Race Releations (2007)

Apparently, Intel didn't learn anything from Sony's 2006 blunder. In August 2007, the company found itself in the center of controversy over a print ad showing a white man surrounded by six sprinters. It doesn't sound too bad at all, until you really analyze the image. The sprinters are black, and appear to be bowing to the white man. A message that does little to advance race relations.

Complaints caused Intel to remove the ad and they issued an apology through the company's Web site, saying the intent was to "convey the performance capabilities of our processors through the visual metaphor of a sprinter." The apology goes on to say, "Unfortunately, our execution did not deliver our intended message and in fact proved to be insensitive and insulting."

Raging Cow's Blogging Blunder (2003)

While blogging can be a great PR tool, it can also be a disaster if you try to fool consumers. Raging Cow, a Dr. Pepper/7 Up product, became a classic example of this in 2003.

A group of teens was brought in and briefed on the Raging Cow flavored milk. They were told to go out and blog about this new product but not divulge that they were being told to do so. The company hoped the word of mouth advertising would make the new product a hit.

The lack of authenticity behind the blogging, along with a fictional mascot's blog, spread across the Internet. Hard core bloggers protested, the milk was briefly sold in a few test cities, and the product ultimately flopped.

Walmart's Phony PR (2006)

Walmart will also go down in advertising history with an outed fake blog. In September 2006, the Wal-Marting Across America blog hit the Internet.

The blog featured two Walmart fans, named Jim and Laura, who drove their RV across America to talk with Walmart employees. Their travels and experiences were documented on their blog. What a great piece of UGC, right? Wrong.

What wasn't documented on the blog was the fact that Walmart compensated Jim and Laura to write the blog, paid for the RV they drove, and even scheduled their itinerary. The blog was exposed and mysteriously disappeared off the net. PR firm Edelman admitted it was the mastermind behind the fake Walmart blog, and it was later uncovered that Edelman created two additional faux blogs.

Tricking consumers is never a way to gain their business. With real blog posts blasting companies who try to fool consumers, the damage of fake blogs can be long-lasting.

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