It’s widely believed in marketing circles that the era of “the campaign” — a specific media push around a single theme — is over, and brands instead need to be having a conversation with customers 24/7/365 in order to win their loyalty.
But all that chatter also gives brands more opportunities to put their feet in their proverbial mouths. And so it has gone in 2013, a year in which major corporations from AT&T to Unilever have been forced to apologise for ads that were sexist, homophobic, racist, or just plain wrong.
Many of the companies in question claimed they never approved the ads listed here, but it still boggles the mind that any of them were made in the first place.
With this in mind, please enjoy our list of the top 10 most outrageous ads companies were forced to apologise for in 2013:
10. Unilever Brand Can’t Think Of Anything More Heartbreaking Than Having Your Kid Come Out Of The Closet
The Unilever margarine brand Flora had some explaining to do back in September after releasing this ad, which compared learning that your son or daughter is gay to taking a bullet to the heart:
In case you can’t read it, the bullet says “UHH, DAD I’M GAY,” and the text in the bottom right-hand corner reads “You need a strong heart today.”
The ad was made by Lowe & Partners Johannesburg to present Flora as a heart-healthy alternative to butter. However, Unilever said it was made by an external agency and that it never saw the ad before it ran.
“This advert was prepared by an external agency in South Africa and was not approved by anyone at Unilever,” Unilever said shortly after the ad was released. “The advert is offensive and unacceptable and we have put an immediate stop to it.”
9. Mercedes Releases Sexually Suggestive Song About The Relationship Between A Car And Its Mechanic
Here are some sample lyrics from the song, which is sung by a woman from the perspective of a car: “I like them to be strong, that they can catch me when I skid/ Like them to turn me on, I thought that some of them did/But just as I needed a helping hand, so many men were ‘out of service,’ not like you … You only give your best, won’t stop until I smile.”
The video was taken down shortly afterward, with a spokesperson telling Business Insider that the bizarre video was posted on the service department’s YouTube channel after it received positive feedback within the company.
“We were very dismayed to see how the Mercedes-Benz service song’s video was perceived in some U.S. blogs. Therefore we immediately removed it from all websites we have control over,” the spokesperson told Business Insider. “We regret that the video has caused concern and apologise for it. We certainly did not intend to offend anybody.”
8. AT&T Seizes Marketing Opportunity On 9/11
On the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, AT&T paid tribute to the fallen by tweeting an image of a Blackberry Z10 taking a photo of the two columns of light at Ground Zero.
Though the branding on the phone was covered up, many people expressed the sentiment that every tweet posted by a brand is written with the ultimate goal of selling products. To them, the anniversary of a national tragedy was an inappropriate touchpoint to use in pursuit of this commercial end.
“I consider that date a solemn occasion each year, a time when I reach out to those I was with on that awful day, share a moment of reflection for the lives lost and express my love of country,” Stephenson wrote of 9/11. “It is a day that should never be forgotten and never, ever commercialized. I commit AT&T to this standard as we move forward.”
7. McDonald’s Apologizes For Comparing Depression To A Big Mac Craving
Last spring, McDonald’s ran an ad on Boston’s public transit system that showed a woman crying in the style of anti-suicide public awareness initiatives. Only its ad read: “You’re Not Alone. Millions of people love the Big Mac,” revealing that the woman is actually crying because she desperately wants a hamburger. The phone number in the bottom right-hand corner leads to McDonald’s corporate office.
Naturally, people who struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts (or know people who have) were upset. McDonald’s said it didn’t approve the ad, and both McDonald’s and advertising agency Arnold Boston apologized for its insensitive nature.
6. Swiffer Debases A Feminist Icon
Rosie The Riveter, pictured below in an iconic ad by Westinghouse Company, emerged as an icon of female strength during World War II, symbolizing the participation of women who worked in America’s factories while the men were fighting overseas.
But this context apparently escaped the folks at Swiffer, who released a newspaper ad in June that depicted a modernized version of Rosie proudly brandishing a Swiffer instead of showing off her biceps. In doing so, Swiffer transformed Rosie from a powerful testament to women’s capability in the workplace to a posterchild for their traditional domestic duties.
Swiffer responded to the resulting backlash with a pair of apology tweets:
5. Hyundai Makes Light Of Suicide While Touting Environmentally Friendly Car
Hyundai and its agency Innocean made an ad for the ix35 that showed a depressed man attempting suicide by locking himself in his car with a running exhaust pipe. The kicker is that nothing happens to him because the ix35 emits water, not carbon monoxide, since it is a non-polluting fuel-cell car.
The ad might have been received just fine were it not for the real people who do take their own lives by locking themselves in a car full of carbon monoxide.
A freelance copywriter named Holly Brockwell brought this to Hyundai’s attention in a devastating blogpost about how the ad made her recall her father’s suicide. Brockwell’s letter touched a nerve with people who felt the ad exploited real tragedy to sell cars, and the blogpost was quickly passed around the internet.
Facing a tidal wave of consumer anger, Hyundai apologized shortly after, saying that the ad was created by an affiliated agency without its request or approval.
4. Mountain Dew Partners With Tyler The Creator, Presumably Having Never Heard His Music Before
Since bursting on the scene in 2011 with the eerie, violent hit “Yonkers,” (unprintable lyrics here) the rapper Tyler the Creator has carved out a niche for himself as one of the most perverse, explicit, and straight-up nasty artists in the game.
Naturally, Mountain Dew thought Tyler would be the perfect person to handle creative duties on a national advertising campaign.
The result was a flagrantly offensive ad in which a talking goat (voiced by Tyler) intimidates a battered woman out of naming him as her abuser in a police line-up. The other suspects on the lineup were described by the economist and professor Dr. Boyce Watkins as “not just regular black people, but the kinds of ratchety negroes you might find in the middle of any hip-hop minstrel show.”
Dr. Watkins’ criticism of “arguably the most racist commercial in history” gained traction on the internet, and Mountain Dew ultimately issued an apology. Still, it’s sort of incredible to think a major brand gave creative control to a man who’s rapped about how he’d “rape a pregnant b—-, and tell my friends I had a threesome.”
3. Thai Dunkin’ Doughnuts Franchisee Goes With Blackface To Promote ‘Charcoal Doughnut’
Eventually people will learn to stop using blackface, but until then, I suppose we will keep having to write about them every time they do.
In August, Dunkin’ Doughnuts was forced to apologise for an ad by its franchisee in Thailand that used the unfortunate makeup of the minstrel show to promote its chocolate “Charcoal Doughnut.”
Human Rights Watch called the ad “bizarre and racist,” and Dunkin’ Doughnuts apologized. However, the owner of the company’s Thai franchise, Nadim Salhani, was recalcitrant.
“We’re not allowed to use black to promote our doughnuts? I don’t get it,” he told the Associated Press. “What’s the big fuss? What if the product was white and I painted someone white, would that be racist?”
2. Dating Site’s Facebook Ad Uses The Absolute Wrong Thumbnail
The Canadian dating site ionechat.com posted an ad in September that included a photo of a young woman beside an offer to “Meet Canadian girls and women for friendship, dating or relationships.”
The problem? The woman in the ad was Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old girl who’d hanged herself five months earlier after photos of her alleged rape were posted online.
Yikes. Facebook apologized in short order, and banned ionechat.com from advertising on its site.
“This is an extremely unfortunate example of an advertiser scraping an image from the Internet and using it in their ad campaign,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “This is a gross violation of our ad policies and we have removed the ad and permanently deleted the advertiser’s account. We apologise for any harm this has caused.”
1. Ford Can’t Escape Awful Berlusconi Bondage Ad
The agency JWT India takes this year’s title with one of the most disturbing ads we’ve ever seen. The a print illustration depicts the notoriously scuzzy Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi driving a Ford Figo with a trunk full of buxom women who have been bound and gagged. If you look closely, you can see that the woman in the schoolgirl outfit is crying.
The ad was not approved by Ford, but wound up on the internet when the creative team responsible sent it to the website Ads of the World. Both Ford and JWT wound up issuing an apology for the ad, which was intended to make light of Berlusconi’s many affairs by encouraging customers to “leave your worries behind with Figo’s extra-large boot.”
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