Wouldn’t you know it, not only is it Friday the 13th, but it’s spooky season as well. To celebrate, we’re going to take a look at 13 of the scariest, most bone-chilling marketing stuff-ups to ever exist. If you’re in marketing, don’t read this one before bed. You might have nightmares.
Susan Boyle’s Special Invitation
2012 was a different time. Britain’s Got Talent was peak entertainment, X was still Twitter, and Susan Boyle was still a big name. A big name needs a big album release right, so Susan’s PR department took to Twitter to promote the project. Unfortunately, the hashtag they chose could have used a second reading.
#Susanalbumparty was a source of hilarity among dirty-minded Twitter users, who quickly realized that the lack of spacing opened the door to a more… intimate interpretation. Boyle’s PR team hastily swooped in to replace the hashtag with the more innocent #SusanBoylesAlbumParty but by then, the damage was done.
Dolce & Gabbana’s Noodle-Brained idea
In 2018 D&G was growing rapidly in China, which had become their top-performing market. Naturally, they felt a campaign to cement their presence there was a good idea. Given the importance of the Chinese market, we’re sure D&G put a lot of effort into localization and came up with something that respects the history, culture and traditions of the Chinese people. Let’s take a look.
…Oh. Nevermind. Things went downhill even faster when messages from co-founder Stefano Gabbana were leaked, in which he blasts China as ‘a country of (poop emojis)’ among other racist remarks. All in all, the scandal cost D&G 98% of its sales in China that year, and D&G remains a controversial brand in China.
Scott Disick uses copy and paste
Scott Disick is an American media personality best known for his appearances in Keeping up with the Kardashians. Disick caused an uproar in 2016 when he uploaded a post to Instagram endorsing Bootea, including very specific instructions on how to promote it. The caption read “‘Here you go, at 4pm est, write the below: ‘Keeping up the summer workout routine with my morning @booteauk protein shake!’”.
Truly terrifying stuff.
A&W Has Fun With Fractions
American brand A&W had the brilliant idea of introducing a burger to rival McDonalds’ 1/4 pounder. Their new product the ‘1/3 pounder’ was going to undercut McDonalds’ by offering more meat for the same price.
Unfortunately, most consumers saw that 4 is bigger than 3 and assumed that McDonalds’ burgers must be bigger. Puzzled why they would pay the same price for less, the burger was a huge failure. Maybe what’s really scary about this story is the math skills of the typical consumer. We guess there’s a lot of people out there who need to ‘do the math’.
‘Doing a Ratner’
In the 1980’s Ratners was an extremely successful chain of jewellers. They made jewellery feel affordable and achievable by offering low-priced ranges and huge discounts. They were a beloved British brand. That is until 1991, when then-CEO Gerald Ratner addressed a conference at the Royal Albert Hall.
Explaining how his company can afford to sell products at such low prices, Ratner explains ‘because it’s total crap’. He goes on to joke that some of his earrings are ‘cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks and Spencer’s, but I have to say the sandwich will probably last longer than the earrings’. This speech nearly killed off the company overnight. The value of the Ratner group plummeted by £500 million and in the end, they were forced to change their name (they’re now Signet Group) to escape the bad publicity.
As for Gerald, he was dismissed as CEO and people still refer to gaffes like this as ‘doing a Ratner’. Now that’s the stuff of nightmares.
An Album for You, and You, and U2.
Giving away free samples is a great way to get consumers on your side. But in 2014 U2 took this advice a little too far. ITunes users were thrilled to open their library and discover that they had been ‘gifted’ a free copy of U2’s latest album, and there was no obvious way to delete it. Thanks Bono.
Pepsi’s Brand Goes Flat
2017 was a tense time in the USA. The wounds from a divisive election were still fresh. Black Lives Matter was a hot topic. The nation wondered how to move forward in uncharted waters. Enter Pepsi.
According to PepsiCo, their video ad ‘Live for Now’ was an attempt to promote ‘unity, peace and understanding’.
In it, Kylie Jenner is doing a photoshoot when she sees a protest pass by. The protesters are holding signs that say ‘peace’ and ‘join the conversation’. They are smiling and happy. Jenner snaps into street clothes and joins the marching crowd. She makes her way to the front and hands one of the officers a Pepsi. The crowd waits with bated breath to see if the officer will accept this peace offering. When he finally takes a sip, they explode with cheers.
The ad was roasted for trivializing serious issues, and exploiting the BLM movement to sell Pepsi. Even Martin Luther King’s daughter got in on the action.
There’s no coming back from that, so Pepsi had to pull the ad and apologize.
The Mafia-themed video game Godfather was a huge hit for EA, so when it came time to release the sequel Godfather 2 they wanted to pull out all the stops. On top of the usual release, there would also be a special limited edition version of the game which could only be pre-ordered. This limited edition would come with…wait for it…a pair of real brass knuckles.
Look, it’s a Mafia game. We get it. We respect your commitment to the theme. Unfortunately, owning brass knuckles is illegal in many countries (and so is shipping them). Thankfully EA realised this after shipping some early copies to video game journalists, and requested them back in a fit of panic. Who knows what would have happened if they’d had a wider release?
In 2012, Waitrose decided to take advantage of the interactive element of social media. They invited customers to reply to their tweet ‘I shop at Waitrose because…’ using the hashtag #waitrosereasons. Maybe this one wasn’t a complete fail, because they did get some cutting insight into how they’re seen by the general public.
Highlights include ‘I shop at Waitrose because Clarrisa’s pony just WILL NOT eat ASDA Value straw,’ and ‘I shop at Waitrose because you say 10 items or fewer not 10 items or less, which is important’. Another tweeter was more direct ‘I shop at Waitrose because I hate poor people’.
Game Over for Sony
In 2006, Sony faced controversy when they ran this ad promoting their new, white line of PSP gaming consoles. Sony pulled the ad, issued a non-apology and thought they were done with it. Then, like Jason Voorhees returning from the dead, the ad resurfaced on Twitter in 2017 and Sony’s PR took a second beating.
Tesla’s Cybertruck is a Smash Hit
In 2019, Tesla unveiled their new product, the Tesla Cybertruck. One of the truck’s key selling points was its durability. Tesla boasted
‘Cybertruck is built with an exterior shell made for ultimate durability and passenger protection. Starting with a nearly impenetrable exoskeleton, every component is designed for superior strength and endurance, from Ultra-Hard 30X Cold-Rolled stainless-steel structural skin to Tesla armor glass’
Now that’s impressive. With all that going for it, it only makes sense to do a live demonstration. So at the product unveiling, Tesla designer Franz von Holzhausen did exactly that. Holzhausen took a steel ball and pelted it at the vehicle’s windows. The crowd sat in stunned silence as the windows of this indestructible vehicle caved in and cracked.
Trying to salvage the situation, Holzhausen picked the steel ball up again and launched it at the vehicle’s back window, praying that this time things would go as planned. They did not. Tesla boss Elon Musk was then forced to continue his presentation in front of the shattered vehicle.
Dove’s Idea Goes Pear-Shaped
Dove has spent years earning its rep as a pro-women, body positive brand. So it was surprising to see them fumble so hard with their ‘Real Beauty Bottles’ campaign. The concept was simple, Dove would sell their shower gels in six different bottles, each shaped to cover the range of female body types. The idea is that women can walk into a shop and pick out the bottle that is the same shape as them.
The idea was shot down by the public before they ever had the chance to reach the shelves. Dove’s bottles made women feel self-conscious, and would force them to face down insecurities that they were not always ready to face. As the kids say, rare Dove L.
Mark Zuckerberg Visits Puerto Rico
In 2017, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, which killed nearly 3000 people and caused almost $100 billion in damage. Facebook was donating money and resources to help alleviate the disaster and if their marketing had stopped at pointing this out, everything would have been fine. Instead, Facebook took the opportunity to promote their new VR tool ‘Spaces’.
In a regrettable live-stream, Zuckerberg and his head of social VR Rachel Franklin appear as avatars virtually touring the flooded state. Zuckerberg quips ‘One of the things that’s really magical about VR is you can get the feeling you’re really in a place’ as his smiling avatar floats over scenes of total destruction. In another uncomfortable moment, the pair take a moment to high-five over the joys of VR, while still touring a flooded neighbourhood.
The livestream was torched as tone-deaf and exploitative, and the ‘Zuck was forced to apologise.
It’s easy to make mistakes like this, but our 24 fingers have a light touch. We pride ourselves on making your brand stand out without risking your hard-earned reputation. If you’d like to find out more, get in touch.