Danger Ahead: 10 of the Absolute Worst Marketing Mishaps of 2016

Ah, marketing. Love it or hate it, a well crafted and executed marketing campaign still has the power to move us…to tears, or laughter, or awe, and ultimately, to purchase.

At least that’s the goal. Sometimes though, it falls just a little short.

For every puppy-monkey-baby (although annoying, it did capture a lot of attention for Mountain Dew Kickstart), there’s something so cringeworthy that you can’t help but, well, cringe.

A “good” ad campaign can live forever. David Ogilvy’s 1959 marketing for the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud is widely considered the best automobile ad of all-time.

Unfortunately, a “bad” campaign can live just as long (and likely feels even longer). Some brands and products never get over it.

Every year around this time we celebrate the best of the best. The marketing ads and – in our modern digital world – social media posts that did everything right. The instant classics.  

The best campaigns are good for inspiration…but it’s the worst of the bunch that makes us guffaw and shake our heads in a that-would-never-happen-to-me kind of way.

These ten take the prize for 2016. Read. Watch. Enjoy. But under no circumstances should you repeat.

Some are innocent enough…cute little “mistakes” and errors in judgment that make you smile.

But others? Oh. No. They. Didn’t.  

The Rhode Island – Iceland Amalgamation

Quick question: if you could travel to any destination in the world, all expenses paid, where would you go?

If you answered Rhode Island, well, I’m not sure what to say (with all due respect to the Ocean State). Let’s just assume that most of you chose something a little more exotic.

And that’s exactly why Rhode Island Governor Raimondo pushed through a $5 million promotional campaign for the state this year. New website, new logo, promotional video spots. It was high time that the rest of the USA – and the world at large – saw exactly what they were missing. Rhode Island has it going on!

Photo courtesy of Visit Rhode Island

A video created by local agency IndieWhip showcased all the expected “hot spots” like Newport, Providence, lighthouses, the sea…

And Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Say what?!

A scene of a skateboarder with mad skills – because Rhode Island is hip like that – in front of a fabulous glass building was quickly identified by viewers as the Harpa Concert Hall in the Icelandic capital. Oops.

Social media had a field day: Rhode Island didn’t have enough selling points to fill a two minute marketing video without “borrowing” from other places. Ouch.

A spokesperson for the Governor apologized for the error, and the errant footage was removed.

Embarrassing? Heck, yeah. But it won’t live in infamy. On my patented one-through-five facepalm scale, this registers only one.

Total Beauty: Nope, That’s Not Her

The Academy Awards bring together the Hollywood elite to show off their finery and celebrate themselves in an annual lovefest.

In our always-on, always-connected world, many people and brands get in on the fun by live tweeting or streaming along with the red carpet and ceremony. They comment, roast, debate, and generally try to use the event as a springboard to get attention for themselves, their brand, and their products.

But that attention is not always the kind they were hoping for.

This year, online publication Total Beauty had the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. During the preamble before the show kicked off, they tweeted a photo with the caption “We had no idea @Oprah was #tatted and we love it.”

One problem though: the photo was of Whoopi Goldberg, and not the former queen of daytime television. Whoops (or Whoopi, as the case may be).

Photo courtesy of Total Beauty

Two of the most famous African Americans on the planet, and Total Beauty got them mixed up. Even Oprah herself got in on the fun, tweeting out a photo of herself looking incredulous with the comment “We all love @whoopigoldberg but we don’t all look alike Jeeeze.”

Total Beauty made amends with a sincere apology, and a $10,000 donation to charities chosen by the two celebs. But still…

That’s a two facepalm marketing mistake.

Vera Bradley: It’s Good to be a Girl

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously said (when asked why it was important to include the same number of men and women in his cabinet), “Because it’s 2015”.

It’s equally true in 2016. Women are not just pretty things to be admired and taken care of…something luggage and handbag brand Vera Bradley apparently didn’t know. The proof? Look no further than their recent #ItsGoodToBeAGirl hashtag campaign.

The company asked followers to tweet out their favourite benefits of being “a girl”. Sure, why not?

But the responses they chose to highlight on billboards and posters around NYC? Not quite empowering and bold. They included:

  • Giving and receiving compliments on a cute tote
  • Listening to that one song and belting out every single lyric
  • There are so many ways to accessorize your wardrobe
  • Being able to hang out with the boys but still be treated like a lady
  • That moment when a gentleman offers you his seat

Photo courtesy of Paddington Jewel Box

Not cool, Vera Bradley. Not cool. Amongst the many, many reasons I’m sure it’s good to be a girl, cute notes on a tote is not in the top ten. It’s 2016, dagnabit.

You get three facepalms for living in the marketing past.  

Aldi Supermarkets: Kevin the Carrot

What’s not to love about a walking carrot? He’s cute. He’s adorable.

And he will likely end up as reindeer chow.

The Aldi Supermarket chain – perhaps inspired by the success of Seth Rogen’s Sausage Party movie – released a holiday commercial featuring the animated scamp Kevin the Carrot.

You see, Kevin just wants to meet Santa. But his journey involves bumping into other cooked carrots, almost getting squashed by a food avalanche, accidentally mutilating himself on a vegetable grater, and lighting himself on fire. How fun and festive!

And for all his trouble, loveable Kevin ends up tied to one of the reindeer’s antlers, no doubt to end the night as a late-night snack for Rudolph.

Kids (and adults for that matter) do love an anthropomorphic inanimate character, Aldi. But they typically don’t like to see them tortured and consumed in marketing campaigns.

Your present this year? Three facepalms.

Wells Fargo: Teen Education Day

They had such good intentions. Wells Fargo, the international banking and financial services company, released a series of ads promoting teen financial education day.

It’s never too early to teach our children about finances to prepare them for their adult lives. So very true. As the slogan says, “Let’s get them ready for tomorrow”.  

But Wells Fargo dropped the ball on this one. The campaign featured a collection of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young people with captions that read:

  • A ballerina yesterday. An engineer today.
  • An actor yesterday. A botanist today.
  • A writer yesterday. A vet today. (Editor’s note – this one stings, Wells Fargo. Ouch. Very ouch).

Photo courtesy of Andy Mientus

Needless to say, the arts community was less than impressed. The campaign “suggested” (and by “suggested” I mean explicitly stated) that careers in the arts were something only a child would consider. Find a real job!

The backlash was swift and complete, and Wells Fargo issued a hasty apology and pulled the ads.

As someone who enjoys wranglin’ words, I gotta give them a full three facepalms. 

General Electric: It’s Raining Men…um, I mean Octopi.

File this next campaign under “Huh?!”

General Electric is big. Very big. They’re involved in lighting, power, appliances, aviation, energy, healthcare, transportation, and more.

One thing I’m almost positive they’re not involved with? Octopus. Which makes their raining octopi commercial all the more confusing. Is it supposed to be funny? Absurd? A metaphor? Irreverent? Hip and trendy? Just plain silly?

I’m going out on a limb…I don’t get it. What’s happening here? And what does it have to do with GE?

The 60-second video – which looks more like a trailer for a movie that would premiere on the Syfy Channel (think Sharknado or Frankenfish…both excellent cinema, by the way) – confused, amused, and bemused its audience.  

It looks terrifying. It’s an animal lovers worst fear (those poor things would be dead upon impact), and it’s your worst nightmare come to life. But hey…GE has your back. Or something.

The tagline? “We’re ready for whatever you’ve got, world”. Um…okay.

For bewildering and unsettling millions, GE receives three facepalms. Marketing is supposed to make sense. Although I must admit, I would watch this movie (hint, hint Syfy).

Xifaxan: A Smiling Bowel

Sometimes you see a campaign and think “No. Just no”. Some things are not meant to be made into cutesy computer-generated characters.

Take your intestines and bowels, for example. That is one Pixar movie I would not pay to see. A Colon Story? Finding Feces? Good lord, make it stop!

Xifaxan – a new ISB-D drug – respectfully disagrees. Their Super Bowl commercial this year – meaning they dropped millions of dollars on it – featured a walking, talking cartoon intestine. Oh, and he loves football. Oh, and he has diarrhea. He’s pink, weird, and oddly frightening. He’s Chucky with an irritable bowel…and he is a bowel. It’s hard to wrap your head around.

Aside from the obvious – ewww! – this commercial highlights something that most people would rather not discuss. During the Super Bowl. On television. No, no, and no.

Xifaxan and Ian the Intestine (a name I just gave him…her…it)? Three facepalms.

Seoul Secret: Whiteness Makes You Win

Now we get to the OMG marketing campaigns. It’s hard to fathom them slipping through the various decision-makers without someone pointing out the obvious flaws. The ones so bad and in such appallingly bad taste, you at first believe you’re watching an offensive SNL skit.

But you’re not. They’re real.

Up first? Thai beauty product maker Seoul Secret and their “Just being white, you will win” (yup, you read that right) campaign.

Using Thai celebrity Cris Horwang, the company promoted the idea that skin colour is the key to success. Want to succeed at anything and everything? Get whiter! And stay white! It’s so simple.

Hard to imagine something more objectionable or abhorrent packed into something less than a minute long. Seoul Secret apologized for the “confusion”, saying “Our company did not have any intention to convey discriminatory or racist messages.”

Too little, too late. And a four facepalm campaign.

Qiaobi: Wash Out the Black

Lest you believe you need words to get it all wrong, consider the case of Chinese laundry detergent Qiaobi.

An African American man and a Chinese woman exchange flirty glances and gestures. She beckons him closer, but before he can kiss her, she pushes a detergent pac into his mouth and stuffs him into the washing machine. Cue a few seconds of screaming while she sits on the lid to keep him in there, and out pops a “clean” Asian man for our Asian heroine.

A happy ending for all. And not offensive or racist in any way, right?

Unsurprisingly, the ad attracted a great deal of international attention, and was universally proclaimed not only racist and in poor taste, but an embarrassment to Chinese nationals (by those both in and outside of China).  

As is always the case, the company quickly apologized (sort of) and pulled the spot. But nothing ever truly disappears in the digital marketing realm…it’s still out there, and will be forever.

Qiaobi, you get the coveted four facepalm.

Miracle Mattress: The Twin (Tower) Sale

Some events will never be safe for ridicule or jokes. Too soon? Try never. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 fall into this category.

But San Antonio company Miracle Mattress didn’t get that memo. Instead, they thought it a fitting opportunity to sell “any sized mattress for the twin price”. Clever, right? As they say themselves in the spot, what better way to remember 9/11…

This past September, the store released a wildly offensive video commercial promoting the sale. At the end, the woman accidentally pushes the two men behind her into the two towers of twin mattresses, which then tumble to the ground as she screams and solemnly turns to the camera to say “We’ll never forget”.

Wow. Just wow. There are no words for this one. The store received hate mail and even death threats in the aftermath. They, of course, apologized profusely (don’t they always?!). But the damage was already done. And the video will never go away.

Don’t mess with Texas. And don’t use national tragedies to hawk mattresses.

For their incredible lack of judgment, they win the “Worst Marketing Campaign of the Year” award. Hands down. No contest. Not even close.

Five facepalms doesn’t seem like enough for this train wreck.  

These marketing campaigns aren’t so bad…if you believe wholeheartedly in the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” axiom.

For the rest of us, though, they serve as a valuable reminder of what not to do. Of what to avoid. And how to alienate, anger, and tick off your audience (hopefully that’s not a business objective you’ve set for 2017…if so, we need to talk).

From the worst marketing metaphors to the creme de la crap tweets, snaps, and kerplunks (that last one is made up, but I needed a third), it’s remarkably easy to take a wrong turn. Use a map. Avoid the cannibals living in the backwoods.

What about you? What marketing mishaps and campaign can’ts did you see in 2016? Leave your additions in the comments below:

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